In another historic change for the military, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday lifted the ban on transgender persons serving openly in the ranks, calling the move "the right thing to do" both practically and as a matter of principle.
Starting immediately, "Otherwise qualified service members can no longer be involuntarily separated, discharged, or denied re-enlistment or continuation of service just for being transgender," he said at a Pentagon news conference. "Our military, and the nation it defends, will be stronger" as a result, he said.
The secretary said he was acting to ensure that the military of the future had access to the widest talent pool. "We don't want barriers unrelated to a person's qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission," he said.
Another reason for lifting the ban was to end discrimination against those who are transgender and currently serving, Carter said.
He cited Rand Corp. statistics estimating that about 2,500 people out of approximately 1.3 million active-duty service members and about 1,500 out of about 825,000 reserve service members are transgender. The upper range estimates put the number of transgender persons on active duty at 7,000 and at 4,000 in the reserves, he said.
Most importantly, allowing transgender persons to serve openly was a matter of fairness and living up to the American principles of equal treatment and opportunity under the law, Carter said.
"Americans who want to serve and can meet our standards should be afforded the opportunity to compete to do so," he said.
Carter quoted Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who said, "The United States Army is open to all Americans who meet the standard, regardless of who they are. Embedded within our Constitution is that very principle, that all Americans are free and equal."
The lifting of the transgender ban was the latest in a series of rapid and wide-reaching social and cultural changes in the military going back to the 2011 action to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy against gays serving openly in the military and continuing through Carter's move last January to lift restrictions on women serving in combat.
Critics have scorned the changes as "social engineering" that would impact readiness and the ability to fight, and the transitions have been adopted reluctantly by many in the upper ranks.
Significantly, Carter was standing alone at the podium when he made the transgender announcement. In matters of major policy statements, the defense secretary is usually joined by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but Gen. Joseph Dunford was absent.
Dunford was also absent when Carter announced that he was opening combat military occupational specialties to women. As commandant, Dunford had urged closing some combat positions in the Marine Corps to women.
When asked about Dunford's absence, Carter did not respond directly.
"This is my decision," he said.
Carter said the decision was supported by the "senior leadership," but did not say whether Dunford was included in the senior leadership.
Criticism of Carter's action from Capitol Hill was immediate. Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the announcement as "the latest example of the Pentagon and the President prioritizing politics over policy."
"Our military readiness -- and hence, our national security -- is dependent on our troops being medically ready and deployable," Thornberry said. "The administration seems unwilling or unable to assure the Congress and the American people that transgender individuals will meet these individual readiness requirements at a time when our armed forces are deployed around the world."
However, Carter had the authority to change the policy on his own, and it appeared that Congress could do little to block him. Thornberry was vague on whether Congress might seek to act. His statement said that "Congress would examine legislative options to address any readiness issues that might be associated with the new policy."
OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, or SLDN, a group supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender military community, praised the lifting of the ban. "Transgender service members have been awaiting this announcement for months and years. It has been long overdue," said Matt Thorn, executing director of the group.
Thorn said Carter "has given a breath of relief and overdue respect to transgender service members who have been and are currently serving our country with undeniable professionalism, the utmost respect and illustrious courage, with the caveat to do so silently. Today, we mark history, once again, by ending the need to serve in silence."
Carter had made his position on the transgender ban clear last July, when he called the ban "outdated" and ordered a study on lifting it.
"I directed the working group to start with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness, unless and except where objective, practical impediments are identified," he said.
The study looked at other militaries that already allow transgender service members to serve openly. Currently, about 18 militaries allow transgender service, including those of Britain, Israel, Australia, Brazil and Chile.
Based on the analysis of other militaries, Rand concluded that there would be "minimal readiness impacts from allowing transgender service members to serve openly," Carter said. Rand also estimated that health care costs would represent "an exceedingly small proportion" of the department's overall health care expenditures, he said.
The Pentagon signaled it plans to pay for costs associated with transgender health care.
"Medically necessary" gender reassignment surgery and medications will also be covered beginning in about 90 days, Carter said.
"Our doctors will give them medically necessary procedures as determined by the medical professions," he said. "In no later than 90 days, the DoD will issue a commanders' guidebook for leading transgender troops, as well as medical guidance to military doctors for transgender-related care."
The success of changing the policy on transgender service will be determined by how the changes are put in place, said Carter, who set out a year-long course of gradual implementation.
Within three months, the department will issue a commanders' guidebook on how to deal with currently-serving transgender service members, along with guidance to doctors for providing transition-related care if required to currently-serving transgender service members, Carter said. Also within that time period, service members will be able to initiate the process for officially changing their gender in personnel management systems, he said.
Following the guidance period, the focus will turn to training the entire force on the new rules -- "from commanders, to medical personnel, to the operating force and recruiters," Carter said.
By the one-year mark, all service branches will begin allowing transgender individuals to join the armed forces, assuming they meet accession standards. Also, an otherwise-qualified individual's gender identity will not be considered a bar to admission to a military service academy, or participation in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps or any other accession program if the individual meets the new criteria.
Immediately, however, transgender soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen will no longer have to live with the possibility of being booted from the service or denied re-enlistment solely because they are transgender, Carter said. "Service members currently on duty will be able to serve openly," he said.
On the subject of "gender re-assignment" surgery, Carter said the Pentagon will not pay for recruits to have it. "Our initial accession policy will require an individual to have completed any medical treatment that their doctor has determined is necessary in connection with their gender transition and to have been stable in their identified gender for 18 months, as certified by their doctor, before they can enter the military," said.
The decision on whether to allow those already in the ranks to have gender re-assignment surgery paid for by DoD would be up to the individual's military doctor, Carter said. "The medical standards don't change," Carter said, and all service members will be entitled to "all the medical care that doctors deem necessary."
-- Amy Bushatz contributed to this report.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.