In the wake of a highly controversial plan to ban transgender people from serving in the military that was announced by the president via Twitter in July, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff told lawmakers he acknowledged the value of those already in uniform and believed those found mentally and physically fit to continue in service should be afforded the chance to do so.
Speaking at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his reappointment to the chairmanship after two years of service, Gen. Joseph Dunford revealed the advice he said he had privately provided to the administration.
"I would just probably say that I believe any individual who meets the physical and mental standards, and is worldwide deployable and is currently serving should be afforded the opportunity to continue to serve," he said.
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Dunford told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, that he agreed the thousands of transgender troops currently serving had performed their duties with honor and valor.
"If reappointed, can you promise currently-serving transgender individuals who have followed department policy and meet every requirement, as you just said -- as to them, that they will not be separated from the armed services based solely on their gender identity?" Gillibrand asked.
Dunford promised Gillibrand that would be his advice.
The Pentagon was blindsided July 26 when Trump fired off a series of three tweets, saying that after consulting with his generals and military experts, he had decided the government would not "accept or allow" transgender troops to serve in the military in any capacity.
The tweets came just over a year after an order from then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter that instructed the services to prepare to accommodate openly transgender troops and recruits and to draft policy guidance governing name changes, medical treatment, and shared berthing spaces, among other considerations.
A number of transgender troops have begun to serve openly following that policy change, and more serve privately. A 2016 Rand study found up to 6,600 currently serving troops may be transgender, while some advocacy groups put the number as high as 15,000.
In August, Trump sent a memo to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordering him to submit a plan for implementing the transgender ban by Feb. 21. Mattis then moved to organize a panel of experts to study the ban, ordering that existing policy would remain in place while the study continued.
Dunford's comments today represent his first public discussion of the ban and his personal opinions regarding transgender troops.
"These men and women, across all services and occupations, were told by the Department of Defense that they would be allowed to serve openly and continue in their military careers. Many have worked diligently within their chains of command to meet every requirement put forth by the former administration," Gillibrand said. "Now, they have been plunged into a career of uncertainty, and their service and sacrifices have been unfairly tarnished. Many of us on the committee are deeply disturbed by the developments of the last few months."
She asked Dunford if he had had the chance to meet with any transgender troops since the ban was announced.
"I have not, since the -- since, I guess, August, when the announcement was made. But I would certainly do that, Senator," he said.