The top uniformed official in the U.S. Army on Thursday undermined recommendations from Defense Secretary James Mattis against transgender military service — which led to President Trump’s ban on transgender people in the armed forces — by asserting their presence has had no negative impact on unit cohesion.
But Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also undercut efforts the other way in support of transgender military service by saying it’s “not a civil rights issue” and by asserting the U.S. military has the prerogative to set necessary standards for troops.
Milley, along with Army Secretary Mark Esper, made the remarks during congressional testimony on the the posture of the Army under questioning from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has introduced legislation against Trump’s transgender military ban.
Gillibrand, who cited concerns about unit cohesion in the aftermath of the anti-trans recommendations, asked the Army officials if transgender service — first allowed in the Obama years under former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter before Trump tried to ban it — had resulted in any problems. Both officials replied it had not.
Esper, who had previously said the issue of transgender service “hasn’t come up” in talks with soldiers, reported no new problems with unit cohesion.
“Nothing has percolated up to my level,” Esper said. “When I made that comment, I was questioned about if I met with soldiers and talk about these issues, what do they raise? And as I said then…young kids tend to raise the issue in front of them at the day. It could be that they’re performing all-night duty or didn’t get their paycheck, and this was just not an issue that came up at that moment in time.”
Milley echoed the sentiment, saying in response to Gillibrand’s question about whether transgender troops have caused a problem with unit cohesion, “No. Not at all.”
“We have a finite number,” Milley said. “We know who they are, and it is monitored very closely because we’re concerned about that and want to make sure that they are in fact treated with dignity and respect and no have precisely zero reports of issues of cohesion, discipline, moral and all sorts of things.”
The evaluation that transgender service hasn’t negatively affected unit cohesion stands in contrast to the report produced by Mattis to justify Trump’s transgender ban, which was made public last month by the White House.
“[U]ndermining the clear sex-differentiated lines with respect to physical fitness; berthing, bathroom and shower facilities; and uniform and grooming standards, which have all served the branches well to date, risks unnecessarily adding to the challenges faced by leaders at all levels, potentially fraying unit cohesion, and threatening good order and discipline,” the report says.
Aaron Belkin, director of the San Fransico-based Palm Center, said in a statement Milley’s testimony speaks volumes about transgender service and undermines Mattis’ conclusions.
“It is telling for the Army chief of staff to acknowledge there have been ‘zero’ problems with cohesion, discipline or morale just weeks after a DOD report, ostensibly based on months of research, insisted that transgender troops pose a risk to cohesion, discipline and morale,” Belkin said.
Although courts have enjoined the Trump administration from enjoining its ban on transgender military service, Gillibrand said the transgender military ban that Trump is seeking and the Mattis recommendations could still be harmful.
“Transgender service members have now seen the department’s recommendation and are on notice that if the policy is implemented, they will get kicked out for seeking care or treatment for their gender dysphoria,” Gillibrand said. “I’m worried that this uncertainty will have a negative impact on these individuals, but also on their units and that fear of these recommendations will stop these soldiers from seeking care.”
Asked by Gillibrand what the Army is doing to ensure readiness “in the light of the pale that been case on the future of transgender soldiers,” Esper insisted they’re being treated fairly.
“We continue to treat every soldier, transgender or not, with dignity and respect, ensure that they’re well-trained and well-equipped for whatever future fights,” Esper said. “With regard to accessions, our accession folks understand that we are operating under the Carter policy, if you will. We’ve had some persons already join, transgender persons join, and we will continue to assess them and train them and treat them well in accordance with that policy.”
But Gillibrand expressed skepticism, saying the recommendations against transgender service “is different from treating everybody with dignity and respect.”
In the wake of a letter from Democrats seeking information on the process that led Mattis to come to his recommendations against transgender service, Gillibrand asked the officials about the degree to which they had input, citing objections to the recommendations from the American Medical Association about its conclusions.
When Gillibrand asked who represented the Army on the panel of experts Mattis convened, Milley said it was Vice Chief of the Army Gen. James McConville. When Gillibrand asked if any medical experts were included on the panel, Milley said he was unsure, but knew McConville “consulted with lots of internal folks, medical professionals, absolutely yes.” Gillibrand asked Milley to submit to the Senate Armed Services Committee the names of the experts who were consulted, and Milley agreed.
Milley also offered additional information about the nature of the panel of experts Mattis convened to reach his conclusions against transgender service. The Army chief of staff offered to provide Gillibrand the exact names at a later time.
“Each of the service vices, I believe, was on it,” Milley said. “There were several DOD folks. I’m pretty sure the panel was led by the DOD P&R, if I remember right, the under secretary for personnel and readiness.”
But the last word in the exchange wasn’t favorable to transgender service. Asked by Gillibrand if the two had spoken to transgender soldiers, they said they’ve had those exchanges, but not after the recommendations were issued. That’s when Milley pushed back by asserting the military’s right to institute standards.
“My view is that we have an Army that is standards-based,” Milley said. “It has always been standards-based. It will remains standards-based for medical, physical, psychological, conduct, etc. And those soldiers or those applicants, people who want to assess into the Army that meet those standards, and they’re rigorous standards, if you meet those standards, then you’re on the team. If you don’t meet the standards for whatever reason, then you’re not on the team. It’s that simple.”
Those standards, Milley said, may mean certain individuals are unable to serve in the armed forces regardless of what civil rights advocates think.
“This is not an issue, in my view, this is not a civil rights issue,” Milley said. “This is an issue of standards and maintaining deployability and the combat effectiveness and lethality of the United States Army, and I think I speak for the other service chiefs as well.”
Belkin told the Blade he agrees with Milley that issue isn’t about civil rights, but transgender service is in the best interest of military readiness.
“And the research as well as lessons from two years of inclusive policy and 18 foreign militaries that allow transgender service is that treating everybody according to the same standards is what’s best for readiness,” Belkin said. “The problem with the Trump ban is that it is based on scientific distortions, cherry-picked data and double standards that apply only to transgender troops, and no one else.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.