Hats off to the brave soul who made an infographic explaining the military’s leave policy in the wake of COVID-19, because it is one of the most confusing topics I’ve ever had to cover, and I used to write about medical device regulations.

The infographic, which was posted to Air Force amn/nco/snco on Tuesday, appears on the Little Rock Air Force Base website. It makes a valiant effort to break down the COVID-19 leave policy Barney-style so that your average Airman Snuffy can understand. The problem is, it’s still confusing as heck.

The chart starts off with a nice splashy graphic of a clock on fire with the words “Burn as you earn” written in all-caps across its face. Sick, I was wondering how the COVID-19 leave policy worked, and this looks like a new energy drink! Let’s go!

But then we pan right and we start peeping some fine print and some math. Uh-oh, man I’m going to have to squint for this. It makes sense if you think about it, but then as you keep panning right, you see a Quadratic Equation’s worth of brackets and equal signs to figure out your “True Use or Lose” which means how much leave you really have left to use before the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30).

This chart looks like a case of “kids don’t try this at home” for a knuckle-dragging simpleton like myself. But it’s only the latest of a proud Department of Defense tradition of making infographics that are more confusing than clarifying.

For example, who can forget the classic “survivability onion?”

Air Force photo

Or the electronic warfare fuzzball?

Air Force photo

Or the counter-insurgency strategy chart that’s probably more lethal than a Mother of All Bombs

Air Force photo

The electronic warfare fuzzball is especially impressive because I’m pretty sure it’s actually a ‘Where’s Waldo’ puzzle in disguise. It was included in a recent jargon-packed congressional report on the military’s efforts to meld its networks into one single system. It’s supposed to show all the way electronic warfare works on a modern battlefield, in the same way that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel shows the Bible: which is to say that it’s kinda hard to take in all at once.

If anything, it’s a great counterintelligence strategy: if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, then the enemy doesn’t either.

What’s really going on with the Air Force special leave policy

What is COVID-19 Special Leave Accrual, you ask? It all started last year at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when service members around the world found that they could not use any of their 30 annual allotted days of leave to go on vacation because, well, the entire world was on lockdown.

Usually, at the end of each fiscal year on Sept. 30, service members can carry over up to 60 days of unused leave into the next fiscal year. But because there was so much unused leave piling up due to COVID-19, the Department of Defense announced in April 2020 that service members could carry over up to 120 days of unused leave until Sept. 30, 2023, after which point the limit would return to 60 days.

Save up nearly half a year of leave? Sign me up! There was a lot of fine print though. For one thing, most airmen wouldn’t be able to hit the 120-day max limit. That’s because whatever number of days of leave you had left on Sept. 30, 2020, is the most you will be able to carry forward into 2022 and 2023. 

So if you had 70 days of leave left on Sept. 30, 2020, then 70 is all you can carry over into 2021, 2022 and 2023. If you had 120 days, you can carry over 120, but if you had any less than that, then that’s all you can carry over into 2021, 2022 and 2023.

But it gets worse: say you have 100 days of leave leftover on Sept. 30, 2020. You carry that into fiscal year 2021, but say you dip into that for 35 days over the course of fiscal 2021. Is your unused leave limit going into fiscal year 2022 and 2023 still 100 days? Nope, take 35 from 100 and now it’s set at the new level of 65 days. So any amount of leave you dip into will be reflected in how much you can carry over into the next fiscal year. You can get back to your normal maximum carry-over amount of 60 days, but no more than that.

Makes perfect sense right? Nothing like some mental gymnastics to see whether you can fly home from Germany to see your family again. Now that the United States and other countries are lifting their COVID-19 travel restrictions, it should be easier to travel again. The thing is, not all duty stations are so lucky, and they are still on various levels of lockdown. For example, the government of Turkey, where Incirlik Air Base is located, ended its travel restrictions just a week ago

So what are people who still have stacks on stacks of unused leave supposed to do? That’s up to each service secretary to decide.

“Where conditions that severely restrict members’ opportunities to take/use leave still exist, Service Secretaries may designate ships, mobile units, or other duties (which may include locations) for SLA in accordance with Service policies. [For example, places in Europe and Japan where restrictions are still in place],” said Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Ramón Colón-López on Facebook last month.

This reporter could not find guidance from each and every service secretary as of publishing time. Air Force spokesperson Maj. Holly Hess told Task & Purpose that “The Department of the Air Force is actively engaged on the issue of SLA … Once we have more information, we will share it.”

I can only hope that they include infographics like this one.