The Army is now leading the charge to change the U.S. military's long-standing ban on openly transgender troops by seeking guidance about whether it can allow a transgender sergeant to continue serving as the man he is.
Army Sgt. Shane Ortega served three combat tours, according to a Thursday profile in The Washington Post: "Two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. Two as a Marine and one in the Army. Two as a woman and one as a man."
Sgt. Ortega is currently stationed at Wheeler Airfield in Oahu, Hawaii, where he serves as a helicopter crew chief in the Army's 25th Infantry Division. The transgender man — who was assigned female at birth and therefore initially enlisted as such — began his transition to male four years ago, under the supervision of military and civilian doctors, the Post reports.
RELATED: Read The Advocate's exclusive interview with Ortega to find out how he's been able to serve as an out trans man for more than four years.
His government-issued identification, including his driver's license and Social Security card, recognize him as male. The Army, however, still formally lists his gender as female, reports the Post. Because of this discrepancy, Ortega has been on administrative duty since his flight certification was suspended last summer.
"My commitment to serving this country runs deep," Sgt. Ortega said in a statement issued through the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a petition on behalf of Ortega and other trans troops facing separation. "I have been a team and squad leader, a crew chief, and a machine gun section chief. I have been on over 400 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fought side-by-side in foxholes and remote operating bases. As I fight for my country in foreign lands, all I want it is to be able to serve openly while keeping the job that I love. I will continue to fight this fight for the 700,000 transgender veterans that have gone before me who were forced to choose between serving their country and being true to who they are."
Long-standing military regulations deem any proclamation of a transgender identity or gender-affirming clinical treatment to be evidence of a "psychosexual condition" or mental illness that makes one unfit to serve.
But after undergoing a voluntary psychological evaluation several weeks ago, an Army doctor determined that Ortega "tested negative" for gender dysphoria, and deemed the soldier fit to serve, reports the American Civil Liberties Union. But Ortega remains in "administrative limbo because his gender marker in the Military Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) is still listed as female," notes the ACLU. "Sgt. Ortega’s Command has requested clear guidance from the DOD as to whether this means Shane can stay in the military or not."
New Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in February that he was "open-minded" about growing calls to review and ultimately rescind the ban, which advocates say is outdated, ineffective, and discriminatory.
There are an estimated 15,500 transgender Americans currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, according to a 2014 study from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. Advocates who want to see the military regulation changed — which can be done at the discretion of the secretary of Defense, without congressional action — were hopeful that Carter's statements and the White House's support could be the first steps toward reviewing and ultimately rescinding the policy.
But a Pentagon spokesperson told the Post that a standard "current periodic review" of the branch's medical regulations is currently under way, but "is expected to take between 12-18 months; it is not a specific review of the Department's transgender policy." Similarly, the Pentagon declined to confirm to the Post the number of transgender troops who have been separated under current law, though the newspaper estimates that at least a dozen active-duty soldiers have been discharged for being trans in the past six months.
In the meantime, Ortega remains grounded — though he expects to be cleared to resume flying later this month, following another physical, the Post reports. "He will then be permitted to perform the full range of duties as a helicopter crew chief, though technically still designated as female."