June 30, 2016
Defense Secretary Ash Carter reacts to a reporter's attempt at one last question as he departs a news conference at the Pentagon Thursday.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday that the Pentagon will allow transgender people to serve openly in the armed forces, a decision one activist called the final barrier to military service to fall in a series begun 68 years ago with President Harry Truman's desegregation order.
Carter said the Pentagon had jettisoned restrictions "unrelated to a person's qualification to serve" that had kept the nation "from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who can best accomplish the mission."
"We have to have access to 100 percent of America's population for our all-volunteer force, to be able to recruit from among them the most highly qualified - and to retain them," he added.
Small fraction affected
Until now, transgender people could not serve openly in the military. The policy immediately changes that and prevents them from being discharged solely because of their sexual orientation. It affects only a small fraction of the nation's 1.3 million-strong military, another turn in the transformation of a mostly white, male and heterosexual force that began in the mid-20th century.
Late last year, after years of analysis by the services, Carter ordered the military to allow women to compete for combat roles never before open to them, impacting 220,000 jobs.
Earlier this month, the Senate approved a bill that would require women to register for the Selective Service System, which tracks military-age males who are eligible for conscription in the event of a future draft. The military has had an all-volunteer force for decades.
Gays were allowed to serve openly after Congress more than five years ago repealed "don't ask, don't tell," a much-maligned Clinton-era policy designed to allow gays to serve if they kept their sexual orientation hidden.
Groups that have fought for such changes welcomed the latest action.
Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy organization that supports military sexual trauma victims, said the Pentagon has ended the last barrier to service besides limits based on age and physical ability.
"I think it's huge. It's transformative. I think what it says is we are now valuing people as people and not looking at them by their sex or sexual identity, the same as we did with race," he said.
Carter not only ended the ban on transgender troops but also embedded a timetable for a series of actions that will take effect across the services over the next year.
The Defense Department will issue a training handbook for commanders, transgender service members and the force by Oct. 1, as well as hand down medical guidance for the military's health care system to immediately provide what the policy calls "transition-related care to transgender service members."
The Pentagon said the transition will conclude with a change of gender listed in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) and with the service member serving as, and recognized in, his or her preferred gender.
Reaction to the Obama administration decision broke along partisan lines. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said lifting the ban "is a step in the right direction for our military.
"At a time when the United States is engaged in multiple conflicts around the world, we should embrace all who wish to serve their country," he added.
Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council and a Marine veteran, lambasted the transgender policy change.
"This is yet another example of President Obama using America's military to fight culture wars instead of to fight real wars against the enemies of our nation," Perkins said. "Now Mr. Obama has only added to his legacy of misplaced priorities with regard to our country's defense."
SIG CHRISTENSON IS A REPORTER AT THE SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS.