Pentagon weighs allowing transgender troops to serve openly

Jamie Ewing got kicked out of the U.S. military two years ago for becoming who she believes she was meant to be: a transgender woman.

Now a defense contractor specializing in forensics at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ewing, 30, is thinking about reenlisting. Last month, the Pentagon took a step toward allowing people like Ewing to serve, just like transgender troops do in at least 18 other nations. The move comes four years after the Obama administration’s repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the ranks.

Ewing is among roughly 150,000 transgender people who have served in the U.S. military. Of those, 15,500 are still in uniform, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.

“It’s definitely a huge, positive step in the right direction,” said Ewing, who now has shoulder-length brown hair.

Not everyone agrees.

“Considering the abysmal condition of our military and a decline in readiness, why is this a top priority for the Obama administration?” retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council — a Washington-based Christian lobbying group – said in a prepared statement. “Before changing any policy, the impact on military readiness has to be the first consideration. The Pentagon must answer whether this proposed policy makes our military more capable of performing its mission. The answer is a very clear and resounding no.”

The topic received an airing at last week’s Republican presidential debate.

“The military is not a social experiment,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said when asked about the Pentagon’s move.

U.S. Defense Department regulations now block transgender people from the military. It is unknown how many have been kicked out because the military doesn’t keep such statistics.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said transgender men and women serving in the military “are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that’s contrary to our value of service and individual merit.” Carter ordered the Defense Department to study the issue over the next six months, focusing on how enlisting transgender troops would affect military readiness. He directed Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson to lead the effort. Though he hasn’t announced a final decision, Carter left little doubt about the expected outcome of the study.

“At my direction, the working group will 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 Defense Department will be forced to confront a number of practical concerns as it moves forward, according to a Congressional Research Service report issued last month, including the duty assignments given to transgender troops, the types of uniforms they will be issued, and the genders listed on their military identification. Officials will also need to consider physical fitness testing and standards — which vary by gender — for people undergoing hormone therapy.

Groups that represent transgender troops and their relatives hailed Carter’s announcement. They point to a 2014 report coauthored by Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. surgeon general, that says “there is no compelling medical reason for the ban” on transgender troops.

“We believe that the criteria for service really should be based on an individual’s capability to serve rather than their gender identify or their sexual orientation,” said Lori Hensic, director of research and policy for the American Military Partner Association, a nonprofit that supports families of bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender troops.

Kristin Beck, a former Navy SEAL who did some of her military training at Georgia’s Ft. Benning, had been pushing the Pentagon for a policy change. Beck gained national attention two years ago for coming out as a transgender woman. She has also starred in a documentary about her experience and has published a memoir entitled “Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming Out Transgender.”

“It’s a giant step forward in human rights,” Beck, who went on seven combat deployments and earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart during her 20 years with the SEALs, said of the Pentagon announcement. “There is a cross-section of the population that has been disenfranchised and told that we are not good enough… to finally be recognized that we are capable is great news.”

Now running for Congress as a Democrat in Southern Maryland, Beck said she sometimes changes her phone number because she has received death threats for coming out as a transgender woman.

“This is my own identify,” she said. “This is how I see myself. And so a lot of people start getting these really weird notions in their heads and they just take it to extremes. And so I get a lot of hate mail and death threats because I am so vocal about this cause.”

“Imagine you are a kid growing up and your heroes were Navy SEALs and then suddenly you see me,” she continued. “It kind of makes your head crack a little bit.”

Like Beck, Ewing said she knew as a child that she was supposed to be a female. Ewing said she was disciplined for playing with girls’ toys and rewarded for playing with boys’ toys. As she grew up, she did a lot of traditionally masculine things to suppress her feelings, restoring muscle cars, working in the construction industry and studying diesel mechanics.

“I kept trying to find my niche and have it just go away,” she said. “And the more and more I did that the more and more I hated myself. It just wasn’t me. It just didn’t really fit.”

Ewing joined the Army in 2008 and served on active duty for nearly 4 years. She spent most of that time transitioning to become a woman, using hormone replacement therapy.

“Serving in the military was definitely a struggle prior to transitioning, having to shave my head every other week – just kind of hiding myself from everybody, not really being part of the team, part of the unit,” she said.

After she got out of the Army, she joined the Ohio National Guard, where she served openly as a transgender woman and “found my niche as a female soldier. I really enjoyed the military at that point.” She moved to Georgia to take a defense contractor job, but remained with the Guard and participated in military drills near Fort Gordon. Ewing said the Guard discharged her in 2013 because she is transgender.

Carter’s announcement has got Ewing thinking about reenlisting in the Army. She said she enjoys serving her country as part of a team.

“I definitely make a lot more money as a defense contractor, but, personally, I am seriously considering rejoining,” she said. “Sure it is a pay cut, but for me personally it means a lot more to me.”

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