WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Ash Carterannounced Thursday that the military will no longer discriminate against transgender troops, knocking down one of the last barriers to service based on sex.
The move, nearly a year in the making, came despite last-minute concerns were raised by top brass about how to deal with the medical, housing and uniform issues for troops who are transitioning to the other sex.
“This is the right thing to do for our people and for the force,” Carter said. “We’re talking about talented Americans who are serving with distinction or who want the opportunity to serve. We can’t allow barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission.”
The Pentagon, Carter said, needs “access to 100%” of our population to develop the military force the nation needs.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon removed the last barriers to women serving in frontline combat roles provided they meet physical standards. And five years ago, the military repealed its Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy which required gay and lesbian troops to hide their sexual orientation or face discharge.
Last July, Carter announced that a study group had been chartered to examine the issues raised by lifting the ban. He also ordered that decisions on discharging troops with gender dysphoria had to be raised to senior Pentagon officials, essentially ending the practice of ending the careers of transgender troops from service for medical reasons.
There are between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender troops in the active-duty force of 1.3 million, according to Agnes Schaefer, the lead author of a RAND Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon on the issue. Of those troops, RAND estimates that between 30 and 140 would seek hormone treatment, and 25 to 130 would seek surgery. The estimated annual price tag: $2.4 million to $8.4 million, per year.
The effect on readiness to fight, or deploy, is anticipated to be small, Schaefer said. Transgender troops would be unavailable to deploy between 8 and 43 man years annually, a measure of military readiness. The military overall has 1.2 million man years. The Army has about 5,300 non-deployable man years.
“The bottom line is that we think it will be minimal,” Schaefer said of the effect on military readiness of lifting the ban.
By Oct. 1, the Pentagon will create training handbook, medical protocol and “guidance for changing a service member’s gender in the Defense Eligibility Enrollment System (DEERS),” Carter’s announcement said. “At this point, the services will be required to provide medically necessary care and treatment to transgender service members according to the medical protocol and guidance, and may begin changing gender markers in DEERS.”
The reality, Carter said, is that there are already transgender people serving in the military, and the Pentagon owes it to them to care for them and give commanders guidance.
Early this month, Air Force Secretary Deborah James said a key sticking point in crafting the policy was the point in a recruit’s transition that the military would accept them for service.
“I’m certain the transgenders will be allowed to serve in a more open way,” James said on C-SPAN. “We’re trying to get the specific policy matters underneath the umbrella policy so that we do it correctly, and roll it out correctly. So if there’s training required, we have that in place, so we explain to commanders and troops how we will proceed.”
The acceptance of transgender troops and the repeal of the ban has come with relatively speed compared with the integration of women and gays into the ranks. Discussions about prohibiting transgender troops from service began about two years ago, while debate about women and gays raged for decades before being resolved.
The decision to lift the ban was not entirely welcome on Capitol Hill. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a Texas Republican, asked Carter pointed, specific questions last year about how removing the ban would improve military readiness, including its cost and effect on morale. A letter in response to Thornberry from the Pentagon, obtained by USA TODAY, thanked him for his interest but provided no specific answers.
Carter called the decision to end the ban his own, which was why the military’s top uniformed officers, such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, was not appearing with him to announce the change.