Last week Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that transgender individuals can now openly serve in the United States military. The announcement came after an extended study and, without a doubt, a lot of angry shouting matches in the Pentagon between policy makers. Still, the announcement is a bit confusing and contradictory to people not familiar with the way the military works; it seems to drag its feet on a few things and to even possibly contradict itself. As a former barracks lawyer, maybe I can explain it a bit without getting too technical.
First off, you have to understand that the Department of Defense is the nation’s largest employer, with almost 3 million employees, and another 2 million retirees and dependents receiving benefits. It has over 5,000 locations or sites all over the world and is responsible for that cover over 30 million acres of land. This is not a small organization. The American military is a vast complex that has four branches, each with its own sets of rules and laws, and it has to coordinate with numerous other government organizations both foreign and domestic. It’s overwhelming in its bureaucracy. For example, the Army guide to writing a memo is over a hundred pages long. Everything has a memo, a policy letter, a PowerPoint, and lots of meetings behind it. Nothing is done quickly except fighting, and even then there is paperwork. Everything has a study based on a report of a review. With that firmly in your mind, you have an idea of what we are looking at.
The military’s policy is notable in that it immediately halts any separation from service that is currently under way based on a soldier being transgender. Over the next 90 days, it begins the long and never-ending task of training. It has to ensure that its millions of employees, both uniformed and civilian, are trained on the new policy, given the appropriate training materials, and begin the process of updating records appropriately. One notable fact is that it will issue medical guidance on care for transgender soldiers. Many military installations have a hospital on base, but many have little more than a medical clinic, and some simply send soldiers to local hospitals. This means that the providers who serve the DoD will have to be brought up to speed, but so will everyone who touches that paperwork, and like I said, it’s a lot of paperwork. That’s just handing out the training and guidance materials — over the next year, every one of those 3 million people will sit in more than one class, review more than a few guides and manuals, and suffer death by PowerPoint.
Of course, these are just the initial trainings; each unit has a level of “commander’s discretion” on how to implement the spirit of the policy. This is due to the fact that each facility, ship, and situation calls for different ways to implement. Not every base is in a major metropolitan area like San Diego or Norfolk — some places are iced in nine months of the year — so each location has to develop its own method of ensuring the unique needs of a trans individual are met. These vary as much as supplying hormones to unique medical issues based on the different points in service members' transition. What about when soldiers are in another country? How do you broach the subject in countries that have complex social and legal rules in place pertaining to gender, sexuality, and LGBT people?
What has caused some rumblings is the way the DoD is handling those who are currently in, from those who want to join. Soldiers currently in the service “will be provided medical care and treatment for their medical condition,” but it’s currently ambiguous what that will mean. Hormone treatment is already provided, but will the military include top surgery? Gender-confirmation surgery? Will it cover facial feminization surgery? Electrolysis or laser? There is no guidance on that yet available, but most likely it will be no different than what most insurance providers who cover trans care do. It’s interesting to note that the military does allow and cover medical plastic surgery, but not "vanity" surgeries like breast augmentation or nose jobs. So how they define those surgeries will be interesting. Also the fact that there is often an extended recovery time involved in them will be interesting. What will be the rules on duty limitations be after having gender-confirmation surgery?
What’s confusing and frustrating to people, though, is that the military’s initial recruiting policy will be that someone will have to have completed "any medical treatment that their doctor has deemed necessary" and lived in their transitioned role for a year and a half. So why is the military letting those already in have their treatments provided but requiring those who want in to be nearly complete in their transition? The explanation is one many may not want to hear; the military doesn’t have the time, the patience, or the facilities to support trans individuals during training. Sorry, but it’s the way it is.
During the initial training period the military is trying to take people off the streets, instill in them the necessary discipline, train them physically, indoctrinate them in a completely different way of life, and teach them how to use complex equipment, work under extreme stress, and use deadly weaponry in a very limited and regimented environment. Trainees are under a level of control that many prisons would envy. During this period even simple medications like aspirin are kept under control, so a trainee having access to hormone injections with needles and syringes is a daunting thing indeed. Blocks of time are organized down to the minute, with soldiers often having as little as 15 minutes to use the bathroom, conduct personal hygiene, and change clothes. It would be restricting and disrupting to block off the showers for a single individual to shower if they are pre-op and other soldiers object to showering with them. There is no time to let a soldier go to the clinic to have their hormone levels checked. The first and foremost task of the military is to train to fight wars and to actually fight in them. The initial training period is one that has been tuned to a fine science and even has its own individual command structure often led by a three-star general. To suddenly upend that would be a major distraction and disruptive to the force readiness.
Does this mean that you could possibly know you are trans before joining, go through the enlistment and training process, become a fully trained soldier and then come out and have the military accommodate and support you? Yeah, you definitely could. You wouldn’t be the first one who lied on their enlistment forms. Note, I am not encouraging this, as fraudulent enlistment can be punished by a dishonorable discharge — the equivalent of a felony on your record — and up to two years in a military prison.
The good news on this front is that two years after the implementation the DoD will review the policy to update it based on the lessons it has learned through the process. This might include opening up training to people currently transitioning as the military has modified its training program and facilities. While this may seem like a dragged-out and unnecessary process, you have to understand that this is a major undertaking for such a large organization. It has stepped out ahead of most governmental organizations, schools, and companies with this policy to become a leader in social change. To give a perspective on how quick and vast this change is, when the military integrated racially, from the first official memorandum to presidential order, the process took eight years, with another six years to fully implement. Is this a perfect policy? No. Is it a workable policy? Yes.
Though, here’s something to think about. With the adoption of this policy, the U.S. military, no matter what you think of it, now has policies in place respecting the rights people of every race, religion, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. This makes it one of the most socially progressive institutions in America. Think about that one for a bit.