DoD’s Transgender Entrance Policy Exists for a Reason

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Service in the U.S. armed forces is a privilege open to those who meet the established standards without special accommodation.  

As long as there have been armies, there have been military entrance criteria. For example, in the Civil War, recruits had to have a sufficient number of teeth to be able to tear open paper rifle musket cartridges.  Today because of the needs and sophistication of the U.S. military, the requirements are lengthier and more complex.   

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, around 71 percent of young Americans are unable to meet the entrance criteria for today’s volunteer force.  Some are ineligible due to educational or legal issues, but most of the reasons pertain to health.  A shocking 27 percent of young Americans are too overweight to serve.  Another 32 percent have other disqualifying conditions such as asthma, poor eyesight, mental health issues, or shoulder issues.  Individuals who need constant medication or follow-on treatment to deal with ongoing medical issues are also ineligible.

Why? Because in the military, you literally place your life into the hands of your comrades.  You count on the man or woman to your left and right to carry out their tasks—to bring ammo, carry a stretcher, co-pilot an aircraft, or stand watch on a ship.  If they are unable—or even not at their best---lives are lost.

Similarly, in deployed situations, a constant flow of medications or reliable access to medical care cannot be guaranteed. Hence, someone who needs that level of care presents a risk, both to themselves and their unit.  To steal a football analogy, everyone needs to be able to play a position on the field, there are no “safe” jobs.

For those in the military, dealing with stress is a constant, and troops must develop means to cope.   Service members spend long periods away from family, friends and home.  Conditions are often austere, and when deployed, dangerous.  Tragically, suicide rates among military members are already too high, recently surpassing the U.S. average. For these reasons, the military should be extraordinarily careful to prevent individuals who are already predisposed to stress injury to enter.  

This brings us to a current debate: What if there was a medical condition proven to cause those who suffer from it extraordinary stress, to the point that these individuals attempt suicide at nine times the general U.S. population? Similarly, individuals with this condition report experiencing serious psychological distress at eight times the rate of the U.S. population.

And suppose, Defense Department records reflect that service members diagnosed with this condition are nine times more likely than those without it to seek mental health help from a medical professional.

For the reasons described above, you would assume that someone with this condition---like those with severe depression or bipolar disorder---would be ineligible to join the military.

But what if the condition is gender dysphoria, the medically recognized condition where individuals experience severe discomfort with their biological sex, resulting in significant distress or difficulty functioning. 

For about a year at the end of the Obama administration, all restrictions on service by those with gender dysphoria were lifted, but in 2018, after an exhaustive study of the issue, Defense Secretary James Mattis implemented the current policy, historically allowing service by transgender individuals, but wisely preventing those individuals suffering from gender dysphoria from enlisting.

In late June, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced an amendment to the 2021 defense authorization bill to extend Supreme Court workplace protections against sex discrimination to the military overturning DoD’s current policy.  And Wednesday, over 100 House Democrats sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper advocating for the current policy to be overturned.

Reversing the policy may have ideological appeal, but in actual practice, it would diminish the readiness of the armed forces and place individuals who are not psychologically prepared in situations likely to cause them harm.

Members of the military count on Congress to have their backs and act in their best interest of readiness.  While this proposal may please some external advocacy groups, responsible leadership requires Congress to understand that this proposal represents a path towards weakening our military at the same time it finds itself faced with increasing threats throughout the world. 

The current policy was crafted to allow those who are free from gender dysphoria to serve while protecting those who may be harmed by military service.  It ensures long-term military readiness, strikes the right balance for our country, and should be maintained.


Thomas W. Spoehr, U.S. Army Ret., is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.



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