Female and Transgender Troops Fear Combat Exclusion in Trump’s Pentagon
Trump and his deputies are skeptical of historic policy changes at the Pentagon opening up combat jobs to women and allowing transgender troops to serve openly.
Women and transgender troops in the U.S. military, seeking to defend their hard-fought access to combat roles against attacks from conservatives in Congress, are worried President-elect Donald Trump will overturn revolutionary Defense Department policies as part of his declared war on so-called “political correctness.”
The Pentagon personnel changes, pushed through by Defense Secretary Ash Carter over the last year, have been portrayed by Trump and his incoming security advisors as ill-advised “social engineering” imposed on the armed forces. That puts the newly won rights for women and transgender troops at risk, activists say, and calls into question the fate of the groundbreaking policy changes that were years in the making.
Kate Germano, a recently retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, said women in the military are deeply anxious that newly opened career paths could be cut off under Trump’s administration and that the tone of the next White House could undermine the status of female troops.
“Here we have a soon-to-be commander in chief who has a pattern of groping women, who has a pattern of judging women based solely on their looks and on their physical attributes, and he’s going to be in charge of the military,” said Germano, the chief operating officer at Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), which provides support for women in the military.
“We have reason to be concerned.”
A Military Times poll taken just after the election in November found that 55 percent of female troops contacted said they are concerned their jobs will be “adversely affected” under a Trump presidency.
Many Republican lawmakers strongly opposed the changes to Pentagon personnel policies, and some plan to press the issue.
“The feeling is that the president-elect is prepared to look at all the bad decisions or dramatic policy changes that don’t serve to make the military more lethal or effective,” Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), told Foreign Policy when asked to respond to the fate of women in combat and transgender troops.
The California congressman, a retired Marine and Iraq War veteran who backed Trump early in his candidacy, has vocally opposed opening combat jobs to women and integrating transgender troops into the military. If Team Trump is “true to their word about restoring the warrior mentality, then policies like ground combat integration and transgender advancement should get first look,” Kasper said.
But it’s unclear whether the Republican leadership and the new administration will place a high priority on reviewing the personnel changes. Other concerns — including Russian hacking, Chinese moves in the South China Sea, the fight against the Islamic State, and plans to dramatically increase the defense budget — may dominate the first months, if not years, of the Trump administration.
Activist groups that supported the personnel changes are taking no chances and holding meetings with lawmakers to preserve the policies. Just days after the Nov. 8 election, the Palm Center advocacy group posted a statement from more than 30 retired generals and admirals warning the Trump administration against reversing recent changes to policies for transgender troops, arguing for purely merit-based criteria.
“More than half a century of history and research has made clear that an inclusive military that prioritizes talent and ability over social judgment and personal prejudice is an essential ingredient of an effective fighting force,” the statement said.
But retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s nominee to lead the Defense Department, has voiced skepticism about the Obama administration’s policies. In a new book co-edited with FP contributor Kori Schake, Mattis criticized civilian leaders for pushing a “progressive agenda” that he said could weaken the force.
“We fear that an uninformed public is permitting political leaders to impose an accretion of social conventions that are diminishing the combat power of our military,” Mattis and Schake wrote.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, a general who has served with Mattis, shares his fellow Marine’s misgivings about the personnel changes. As head of the Marine Corps, Dunford recommended in 2015 to hold off integrating women into some combat infantry roles. And when Defense Secretary Carter unveiled the decision to open the door to female troops, Dunford refused to participate in the announcement.
Mattis and Dunford are not alone.
Incoming White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who will coordinate policy decisions among members of the president’s National Security Council, told the Republican National Convention in July that burdening troops with “trivial matters about what words to use, what terminology is politically correct, and what bathroom door to open up” is “meaningless.”
Trump’s election alarmed the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in and outside the military, partly because of hard-line conservative language in the Republican Party platform — which opposes same-sex marriage and supports the idea of “conversion therapy” for gay and transgender children — and partly because of Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s long track record of opposing gay rights.
As a congressman, Pence voted against the 2011 repeal of the ban on openly gay troops in the military. As governor of Indiana, he opposed gay marriage and signed a law permitting businesses to refuse service to gay and transgender people by citing religious freedom.
Rescinding or revising the Pentagon’s personnel policies applying to women or transgender troops would not require new legislation. The next defense secretary will have authority to change the policies and only needs to notify Congress 30 days in advance.
“This is not a change that would require a great deal of footwork or legwork on the part of DoD,” Germano said.
The debate over what effect changing the policy would have on the armed forces has long moved past the point of “what ifs.” According to figures provided by the Army, 25 female officers have already gone to work in the infantry and armor branches since December 2015 — career paths once closed to women. Twenty more female officers are currently enrolled in combat officer courses, all of whom are projected to graduate in 2017 and begin commanding soldiers.
And as of this month, 178 women have signed enlistment contracts and “requested branch assignments into the infantry and armor career fields,” said Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokeswoman. They all will begin training in February, weeks after Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20.
As a result, rolling back the clock might not be so easy.
“This is about as done and dusted as you can get,” said Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center. “It’s pretty darn hard to force people back in the closet after they’ve been honest about who they are.”
Matt Thorn, the executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy group for LGBT service members, estimates that as many as 12,000 to 14,000 transgender troops are currently serving in the U.S. military. He said fewer than 100 have asked for gender conversion treatment.
With hundreds of women starting to fill combat jobs, and transgender troops allowed to serve openly, “it would be more disruptive to roll them back than it was to implement them” in the first place, Thorn said.
“I don’t know how they legally can do it,” he added, noting that the chiefs of the military services — even if they opposed the LGBT policy change in the first place — are well aware of the potential lawsuits and other hurdles they would face if the new rules were scuttled.
“These individuals have come out, and women have worked very hard to get into their position,” Thorn said. “What do you do with everybody once you roll [the policies] back?”
For women aspiring to join the highest ranks of the military, gaining entry to combat jobs is a golden key that was long denied them. Generals with experience commanding troops in combat are often favored for the most powerful positions in the military.
The argument to permit women to serve in ground combat roles gained momentum after the past decade and a half of war. In counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan where traditional front lines were often blurred, female troops regularly found themselves in battle and won praise and promotions for their performance.
A lawsuit filed four years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of four female troops and SWAN argued the Pentagon was discriminating against women by barring them from thousands of combat assignments. Even after the Pentagon unveiled the policy changes for female troops in December 2015, the ACLU chose not to drop the lawsuit to keep pressure on the Defense Department to carry out the reforms promptly. Now with Trump’s election, the legal motion could be the basis for a high-stakes battle over the future of women in the military.
Trump’s election has raised expectations in Congress and among socially conservative activists. The party’s platform, adopted at the Republican convention in July, calls for a review of all “ideology-based” personnel policies and vows that military “readiness should not be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.”
Trump has never articulated detailed positions on women in combat, sexual assault, and LGBT issues. In an October campaign event in Virginia, he promised to “get away from political correctness” in the military after being asked about openly transgender military service and women serving in the military.
And he came under sharp criticism for suggesting sexual assault among troops is the result of introducing women into the military, a view that would have earned him a reprimand if he were in uniform.
Female troops and activists also worry that Trump’s record of sexist comments about women, including a 2005 audio recording of Trump bragging about groping them, sets a terrible example for the military and could set back efforts to counter sexual assaults. Trump apologized for his comments caught on a hot microphone and denied allegations that he made unwanted advances on women.
But the new administration will have to weigh how much time, and political capital, it wants to expend to shred existing policy. Rather than taking drastic action at the outset, the Trump administration could choose to simply slow or freeze the new rules with a review of current personnel policies, rights advocates and defense officials said.
By July 1, 2017, new recruits who are openly transgender will be allowed to enlist. The Trump administration could decide to postpone that move, pending a review. As for women in combat, activists fear the Trump administration could allow the Marine Corps, which opposed the reforms in the first place, to slow-walk the policies or even be allowed to delay the changes indefinitely.
As it is, the Marine Corps has been accused of intentionally dragging its feet and criticized for lagging behind the Army in moving women into combat roles.
“We’re not seeing the same level of progress in all of the services,” Germano said.
“In essence, what we’ve seen the Marine Corps do is slow-roll the process, because there is clearly a desire for women not to move into these fields.”
The Marine Corps has rejected the criticism and insisted that female service members so far have failed to pass the service’s grueling infantry officer course. The Army, meanwhile, has won praise from advocates for how swiftly it has moved to open up combat jobs to women.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley is an outspoken supporter of the changes, citing his own experiences of deploying with female troops.
“Women are in combat. I don’t know what the debate is, actually, frankly, on women in combat. Because women have been fighting in combat for quite some time,” Milley said last year.
Milley, whose mother served in World War II in the Navy’s female WAVES service, added that he would not deny his daughter the chance to serve in combat.
“Last time I checked, my daughter is every bit as much of an American as my son. I don’t want to see either one of them get hurt,” the general said. “But I think both of them have a right to defend their country.”
Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce