Army chief on gender reassignment surgery: We took an oath to defend Constitution

Army chief on gender reassignment surgery: We took an oath to defend Constitution
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The top military leader of the Army on Wednesday stood by the service of transgender soldiers after one received a waiver for gender reassignment surgery, amid the Trump administration’s ongoing debate over whether such troops should be allowed to serve.

“We all, everyone in uniform, we took an oath; we took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the Defense Writers Group in response to a question from The Hill. “And embedded within that Constitution is an idea, and it’s an idea that says you and I, no matter whether you’re male or female, gay or straight or anything else, whether you’re black or you’re white or whether you’re Protestant or you’re Catholic or you’re Jew or you’re Muslim or you don’t believe at all, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor or famous — it doesn’t matter. None of that matters."

“And that’s what we adhere to in the military. It’s a meritocracy in the military. It’s based on standards," he continued. "If you meet the standard, great. If you don’t, then thank you very much for your interest and do something else. So that’s the message, and it has been the message for going on two years or more for the United States military. And that’s kind of where we all stand, I believe, from [Joint Chiefs] Chairman [Gen. Joseph] Dunford on down. It’s a standards-based military, full stop. And that’s the way it is.”

The Pentagon announced Tuesday night that the Defense Health Agency approved a waiver for a soldier to use the military’s health benefits to pay for gender reassignment surgery.

A waiver was needed because the surgery was performed at a civilian health facility.

The soldier in question declared transgender status in August 2016, acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters Wednesday. The soldier tried to schedule the surgery “a couple of different times” over the last year, he added.

The surgery was performed at a civilian hospital in Pennsylvania, McCarthy said.

McCarthy said he did not have any more information on this specific case since the Defense Health Agency handled the waiver and he was just informed of it Tuesday.

The Obama administration in summer 2016 lifted the ban on transgender troops serving openly.

In July, President Trump tweeted that he would ban transgender troops from serving, and in August, issued a memo prohibiting the military from enlisting transgender people and from using funds to pay for gender transition-related surgery.

Several groups filed lawsuits against the policy. Last month, a judge temporarily blocked the ban on service. The judge did not directly rule on the issue of coverage for surgery, but the ruling had the effect of allowing surgeries to proceed by telling the Pentagon to "revert to the status quo" before Trump’s policy.

Asked Wednesday about communications with transgender soldiers since July, McCarthy said the working group to study transgender service ordered by Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Trump identifies first soldier remains from North Korea | New cyber strategy lets US go on offense | Army chief downplays talk of 'Fort Trump' Pompeo backed continued US support in Yemen war over objections from staff: report Stand with veterans instead of predatory for-profit colleges MORE has met with them.

“We have communicated throughout the force about how this process was going to work. I believe the transgender working group being run by Office of Secretary of Defense [personnel and readiness], they have had discussions, interviews with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and that the findings are still ongoing,” he said. “Obviously still working, the legal aspect is in conjunction with the courts. This process is still ongoing, but we have a legal track, we have an internal policy formulation, so we still have a ways to go with this process.”

The number of transgender soldiers awaiting surgery is unclear.

Army Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey said the number is in flux as the soldiers talk with their doctors about the right course of treatment. 

“It’s not a definitive number because every soldier has a different case,” Dailey said. “Each one of those individuals works that care plan through their provider.”