The Army is circulating a draft policy tweak that would specify that soldiers can request to move if they feel state or local laws discriminate against them based on gender, sex, religion, race or pregnancy, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the plans.
The guidance, which would update a vague service policy to add specific language on discrimination, is far from final and would need approval from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. But if enacted, it could be one of the most progressive policies for the force amid a growing wave of local anti-LGBTQ and restrictive contraception laws in conservative-leaning states, where the Army does most of its business.
The policy would ostensibly sanction soldiers to declare that certain states are too racist, too homophobic, too sexist or otherwise discriminatory to be able to live there safely and comfortably.
"Some states are becoming untenable to live in; there's a rise in hate crimes and rise in LGBT discrmination," Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America, an advocacy group, told Military.com. "In order to serve this country, people need to be able to do their job and know their families are safe. All of these states get billions for bases but barely tolerate a lot of the service members."
If finalized, the new rules would clarify what situations would entitle a soldier to a so-called compassionate reassignment. Right now, those rules are vague but are mostly used for soldiers going through family problems that cannot be solved through "leave, correspondence, power of attorney, or help of family members or other parties," according to Army regulations.
The updated guidance, which sources said was drafted in response to several state laws but before a draft of a potential Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked, would instruct commanders that they can use compassionate reassignment specifically to remove troops facing discrimination from their duty stations.
The tweak came from a MILPER message, which is an internal tool for Army leaders and planners to issue policy clarifications, though the guidance has not yet been fully worked out through the policy planning process or briefed to senior leaders, according to one Army source.
"The Army does not comment on leaked, draft documents," Angel Tomko, a service spokesperson, told Military.com in an emailed statement. "AR 600-100 and 600-200 establish the criteria for which soldiers may request for a compassionate reassignment. The chain of command is responsible for ensuring Soldiers and Families' needs are supported and maintain a high quality of life."
According to a 2015 study from Rand Corp., roughly 6% of the military is gay or bisexual and 1% is transgender or nonbinary. Those numbers are likely low, given that the survey was conducted only four years after the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and before transgender troops could serve openly. Gen Z troops, the latest generation starting to fill the ranks, are also much more likely to identify as LGBTQ.
It's unclear whether the Army's inclusion of pregnancy on the list would protect reproductive care for soldiers if Roe v. Wade is overturned. That language could be intended to protect pregnant service members or their families from employment or other discrimination, but could also be a means for some to argue for transfers based on broader reproductive rights.
The sources who reviewed drafts of the potential policy had different interpretations of what the change would mean. In practice, however, reassignment to a new installation wouldn't happen overnight, and it would be almost impossible for a woman to find out she's pregnant, have her command approve a transfer, complete the move and then be able to seek different reproductive care during a pregnancy.
Last week, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, the service's top enlisted leader, told lawmakers that the force is considering some response to the end of Roe v. Wade, though it's unclear whether that is a separate policy being mulled by Army planners.
"The answer is yes, we are drafting policies to ensure we take care of our soldiers in an appropriate way," Grinston told a House Appropriations Committee subpanel. "There are drafts if it were to be overturned, but that would be a decision for the secretary of the Army to decide the policy."
However, the policy tweak shared with Military.com was written in April, weeks before news broke of a draft decision overturning the landmark abortion ruling, according to an Army official with direct knowledge of the situaiton.
At least 13 states have so-called trigger laws that will immediately outlaw abortion if and when Roe v. Wade is overturned. Additional GOP-controlled states are expected to follow suit with similar legislation. Meanwhile, some state lawmakers are considering restricting contraception such as IUDs and Plan B. Some officials, like Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, haven't ruled out an outright ban on contraception. Idaho State Sen. Brent Crane, who is the state's vice majority leader, said he would be open to legislation banning some birth control methods.
Currently, Tricare, which covers 9.6 million troops and veterans, covers IUDs, contraceptive diaphragms, prescription contraceptives and surgical sterilization, which could all be severely curtailed if states go forward with banning or limiting birth control as many service members and their families receive medical care paid for by Tricare off base.
The Army's consideration of a policy to protect soldiers from discriminatory laws is part of a wider Defense Department campaign to start shielding service members from increasingly divisive laws and rhetoric from state-level lawmakers.
Multiple Defense Department and veterans advocate sources have told Military.com the other services are considering similar policies, but it is unclear how far those discussions have advanced.
The closest to a direct challenge from a service to the rise of potentially discriminatory policies coming out of state legislatures occurred in April, when the Air and Space Force vowed to provide medical and legal resources to troops who are impacted by laws "being proposed and passed in states across America that may affect LGBTQ Airmen, Guardians, and/or their LGBTQ dependents in different ways," according to a press release from those services.
Texas has the highest population of soldiers in the nation, serving as the home to the Army's largest installation, Fort Hood. It is also the home of Fort Bliss, in addition to having the nation's second-largest National Guard force. The Army also has major bases in Georgia and North Carolina, as well as a constellation of other smaller bases in conservative southern states including Florida.
Some Republicans have latched onto the culture wars in hopes that new actions will fire up their base ahead of the midterms and the next presidential election.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is largely seen as a GOP front-runner in the event Donald Trump doesn't run for the White House again, signed what critics have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay Bill."
That policy forbids teachers from referencing sexual orientation or gender identity to students between kindergarten and third grade. Gay teachers fear that means even mentioning their spouses could get them fired or land them in the midst of an ugly political fight in school board meetings that have become a staple of right wing media.
In April, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into a law a sweeping measure to prevent transgender kids from playing on sports teams aligning with their gender identity and limiting schools from teaching about race. Kemp also signed a policy that bans books deemed offensive from school libraries and gives parents tools to file complaints.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called on the public to report parents of transgender kids to child protective services if those children are receiving any gender-affirming care.
"What we're seeing across the board is a small group of elected officials who are trying to politicize and weaponize LGBTQ identities in despicable ways. They're not only doing that to our youth, but the collateral damage is hurting our service members," Jacob Thomas, communications director for Common Defense, a progressive advocacy organization, told Military.com. "[Troops] can't be forced to live in places where they aren't seen as fully human."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.