Military Update: Three weeks after Donald Trump, their commander in chief, clouded their futures through a string of tweets, saying he won’t allow them to serve in the military “in any capacity,” thousands of transgender members continue to serve the nation, still anxiously awaiting official policy to determine their fate.
Jennifer Peace, an Army captain and intelligence officer with a wife and three children, and more than 12 years’ service including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the depth of frustration and anxiety is difficult to describe.
“There’s this question [that] maybe it won’t matter if I come in every day and do the best possible job,” because “someone else is going to judge me on something other than my ability to support and defend the Constitution, to deploy, engage and destroy the enemies of the United States of America,” Peace said.
“That’s the only thing I want anyone to look to me for. And, right now, it’s this anxiety. I know, [and] my battle buddies know, that we can rely on each other. We can be there for each other and we can accomplish the mission. But I don’t know if I will be here tomorrow to do it with them.”
Peace said the tweets unsettled her personally and professionally. She was on vacation that day and cut it short to return to Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, Wash., to ask her commander what the tweets meant. He didn’t know.
“We, as a military, operate on standards. We operate on clear direction and guidance. It’s how we do everything,” said Peace. Having been a company commander, she said, “I understand how critical it is to provide clear guidance to soldiers. Now I am worried about my family. I am worried about my future. I’m worried about my organization because I’m not the only transgender soldier [here].
“If I find out tomorrow I am no longer allowed to serve in the United States Army, my unit is going to be impacted, my battle buddies who rely on me to do my job are going to be impacted. There is a lot of anxiety every day,” she said.
On Monday Defense Secretary James Mattis had no information to share about the future of soldiers like Peace. Meeting with press, the retired four-star general was asked about progress shaping a policy to enforce Trump’s blurbs.
For 13 months, transgender military have been allowed to serve openly under a policy that took the Obama administration two years to develop. It will remain in effect until formally replaced, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., so advised. Dunford weighed in a day after Trump had tweeted that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
Think tank RAND studied the issue for the Obama administration and estimated the number of transgender personnel on active duty, before they could serve openly, at between 1,320 and 6,630 across an active force of 1.3 million.
It also estimated that 25 to 130 transgender service members would face deployment restrictions at any given time “due to transition-related medical treatments.” It estimated the military cost of such treatments to total $2.4 million to $8.4 million annually, against a military medical budget of $6.28 billion.
Mattis confirmed that he learned of the tweets while on vacation too. A month earlier he already had announced a six-month delay in the July 1 scheduled start for the military to begin accepting openly transgender recruits. That delay had no impact on policy toward currently serving personnel. Mattis said he ordered it because military leaders couldn’t “answer certain questions” on transgender issues.
Also, he had too few senior civilians in place to oversee the policy due to “challenges [getting] people through the nomination and confirmation process. So, I wanted the time to get them in and to be able to answer those questions.”
But those tweets, Mattis said, “that was the president’s call.” The Defense Department awaits “the president’s direction. I know that our people are engaged with the White House in the drafting of that, and so I'm just waiting for it.”
Why not let the six-month review he ordered in June evolve into a full reconsideration of transgender policy before Trump "jumps in," Mattis was asked. “You all elected -- the American people elected -- the commander in chief. They didn't elect me.…He has that authority and responsibility,” Mattis said.
Mattis said he cannot “find the data” to support RAND estimates that the total number of transgender personnel serving, including in reserve components, is somewhere between 2500 and 7000. Whatever the number, he accepted the suggestion that some current personnel face a period of uncertainty.
“I understand that this is probably more about your suspicion about what could be coming,” Mattis told a reporter. “But the fact is, we have received no direction that would indicate any harm to anybody right now.”
Mattis couldn’t say if those serving, at a minimum, will be allowed to complete enlistment contracts or service obligations, not “until I get the direction from the White House. And then we will study it and come up with what the policy should be. But I'm not willing to sign up for the numbers [RAND] used, and I'm not willing to sign up for the concern any [members] have, considering what the chairman said” about current policy remaining in effect for now.
Trump’s promise of a policy shift was celebrated by some conservative lawmakers, universally condemned by Democrats and transgender support groups, and criticized by some prominent Republicans including Sens. John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the armed services committee, and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Mattis said he intends for the new policy to be informed by more precise numbers on those serving, the medical support they require, and time they are “perhaps non-deployable, leaving others to pick up their share of everything.”
“Secretary Mattis insulted the troops and violated core military values of honesty and integrity when he implied there are problems with transgender military service,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, which advocates for gays, lesbians and transgender service members. Mattis knows, Belkin added “that all of the research has already been done, and that there is nothing 'complex' or 'complicated' about treating everyone according to the same standards.”
At Lewis-McChord, Peace said she knows 15 transgender soldiers well enough to invite to her home. She’s a member of Sparta, an advocacy group that claims 630 members nationwide. All have been serving under a cloud for three weeks.
“If you tell me we’re doing a 10-mile ruck march, I can do a 10-mile ruck march,” Peace said. “If you tell me we’re doing a 50-mile, I can do a 50-mile. But if we get to the end of a 10-mile, I take off my rucksack, take off my boots, I’m relaxing, and then you tell me put your rucksack back on, the fight’s not over, it is so much more difficult. I kind of feel like that’s where I am and my family is.”
Any decision short of allowing current transgender personnel to serve openly and transgender recruits to join openly “would be devastating,” Peace said.
Current policy was set, she said, after a secretary of defense had studied the issue in depth and concluded “we are qualified and capable to serve. And I think anything less is a disservice to this nation.”
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Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.
Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com.
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