Why the US military needs its transgender soldiers
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While Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I don't trust everybody in the White House' JPMorgan CEO withdraws from Saudi conference Trump defends family separations at border MORE and his Republican allies hope to see a historic military build-up over the next four years, adding $54 billion to the budget for more warships and fighter jets, the biggest threat to the strength of our armed forces does not lie in a lack of hardware. The biggest threat to our national defense lies in the growing weakness of our young people.

Of the young people who do not head directly to college after high school, up to 87 percent do not meet military recruitment standards. These youth weigh too much, have a criminal history, use drugs, or can’t pass military entrance exams. The decades-long obesity crisis, underfunded and overburdened public education systems, and skyrocketing drug use are taking their toll.

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The pool of potential recruits who meet military standards has been contracting for some time. Even while the military has been downsizing over the past few years (adjusting back down after the build-up for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars), the Defense Department has had to stretch to hit recruitment targets.

 

One authoritative report predicts that going forward, the military will only be able to hit future recruitment targets by issuing more and more waivers for minor physical problems, conduct violations, or mediocre test scores. And that means that the quality of America’s soldiers will go down.

Rather than trying to strengthen the recruiting pool, Trump has just made it worse by summarily banning transgender individuals from military service. There are an estimated 15,000 transgender individuals in uniform today — representing roughly 1 percent of the military force. Losing these dedicated service members will mean that recruiters will need to replace them by reaching further down into the lower quality range of potential recruits, finding an additional 15,000 young people who do not meet the service's minimum standards.

Although it may be uncomfortable serving alongside transgender soldiers for some troops, one has to wonder if they would prefer to be in a combat situation relying on a fellow soldier who is overweight, drug addled, slow-witted, or oppositional?

The pressure on military recruiters today is not only due to the declining health and fitness of our young people. When the economy is growing, fewer high school graduates are attracted to military service as an alternative to unemployment or a poorly paid, dead-end job. And our economy is indeed continuing to grow, with a recently released estimate of 2.6 percent growth in the last quarter. The result of our growing economy has been more civilian jobs, less young adult unemployment, and a continuing shrinkage of the pool of healthy and fit young people interested in military service.

Pressure on recruiters is also growing due to the need to replace dissatisfied troops, who are less likely to re-enlist than in the past. Surveys by the Military Times indicate that the quality of life in military service has declined: 91 percent of active-duty troops called their quality of life good or excellent in 2009, but only 56 percent felt that way five years later.

To some extent, this growing dissatisfaction is linked to stagnant military pay: half as many rated their pay as good or excellent in 2014 compared to 2009 (44 percent vs. 87 percent). And they are right. Since 2011, annual military pay increases have averaged only 1.3 percent, in contrast to an average increase of 4 percent in the decade prior.

While service members are calling for better pay, Trump and his Republican allies are focused instead on promoting a “historic” expansion of the size of the U.S. military — adding new warships, fighter jets, and other expensive hardware. Although Trump’s stumbles through foreign policy may trigger military conflict at some point, the “hard power” fetishists have offered no credible strategic reasons why the U.S. needs to increase military spending further. In fact, we already spend more on defense than China, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, Saudi Arabia, and Japan combined. This is a build-up in search of a strategy.

But those ships and jets and tanks will need humans to run them. So Trump’s build-up plan includes a force expansion of 150,000 troops — an increase that will be extremely difficult for military recruiters to achieve today.

Even without a build-up, recruiters are facing other obstacles, including the Trump wildcard: It is unclear if our smartest and healthiest young people will have enough confidence in the temperament, knowledge, and wisdom of the commander in chief to put their lives on the line. Young people currently have very little confidence in Trump’s ability to perform as president and commander in chief. Only 23 percent of 18 to 29 year olds approve of Trump’s job performance (compared to 37 percent for all adults). How many will trust his judgement to send them into combat?

After all, during the presidential campaign, Virginia Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineElection Countdown: O'Rourke brings in massive M haul | Deal on judges lets senators return to the trail | Hurricane puts Florida candidates in the spotlight | Adelson spending big to save GOP in midterms Senators warn Trump that Saudi relationship is on the line Virginia police release surveillance video from Jewish center vandalized with swastikas MORE, father of a Marine, said that Trump as commander in chief “scares me to death.”

Young people have other reasons not to trust Trump as commander in chief: Apart from his lack of experience and problematic temperament, he has massive personal conflicts of interest that may distort his military decisions.

Trump has continued to keep information about his global financial interests and debts secret. And critics have already pointed to several places  such as Turkey, Qatar, and Syria — where Trump’s foreign policy decisions may have been influenced by his financial interests.

And so, as Trump banishes transgender individuals from military service regardless of fitness, there is a perfect storm brewing that threatens the quality of our future military force: declining health and fitness, competition from civilian opportunities, distrust in the commander. The danger is that these trends may reduce the quality of our military troops and ultimately undermine the military’s ability to carry out its mission. Against this background, it is folly to rule out service by transgender individuals.

Supporters of Trump's policy point out that there are high levels of suicidality among transgender individuals — suggesting the presence of emotional difficulties that may interfere with combat performance. However, a great deal of the difficulties of transgender individuals stems from a lack of social acceptance.

A recent paper by Michael Trujillo, Paul Perrin and colleagues at the Virginia Commonwealth University indicates that harassment, rejection, and discrimination uniquely predict mental health problems among transgender individuals, and these mental health problems like depression trigger suicidality. But their research also finds that among transgender individuals with medium to high levels of social support, harassment and discrimination does not lead to suicidality.

So the answer to the problem of suicidality among transgender individuals is not to reject them from the military, but to offer them the same commitment to inclusion and respect that we have seen the military make with respect to other groups (based on race, religion, gender, and sexual preference). Decisions about who is fit for service, and in what role, should be made based on individual capacities and weaknesses, not based on group prejudice.

In the face of growing recruitment obstacles — some of which are due to the president's own dysregulated behavior and secret financial interests — the armed services may soon need every healthy, competent and patriotic soldier they can find.

Mark Feinberg Ph.D, is a research professor at Pennsylvania State University.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.