Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, has a couple of nicknames. The longer he serves as leader of the world’s largest military, the more fitting the moniker “Warrior Monk” seems to be.
His actions and decisions are decisive, well thought-out, researched — and always, always taken in consideration of what is best for his beloved troops and the United States. This is apparent in the sane and sensible recommendation he made to the president on the issue of transgender people and military service.
On March 23, President Trump released an executive order that allows most transgender people to serve in the military. Under the order, however, those who suffer from gender dysphoria are disqualified from military service except under very limited circumstances. This latest decision is less restrictive than the total ban on transgender military service the president had attempted on his own last year.
In July 2017, Trump took military leadership by complete surprise when he issued a series of tweets declaring that he was reversing the Obama-era decision to allow transgender people to serve openly. While Trump’s decision was immediately challenged in the courts, Mattis issued interim guidance from the Pentagon protecting transgender active duty personnel from being discharged until the Defense Department could complete its own study. The results of that research were sent in a Feb. 22 memo to the president.
Trump’s newest policy is based on Mattis’ recommendations.
In the memo, the defense secretary carefully explains that “transgender” describes people whose gender identity is different from their biological sex — but that there is a subset of transgender individuals diagnosed with “gender dysphoria,” which means they are so uncomfortable with their biological sex that it tends to cause significant distress and they often have difficulty functioning.
The Mattis memo outlines the findings of a panel of senior uniformed and civilian Defense Department and Coast Guard leaders, including well-seasoned combat veterans, who had been instructed to “consider this issue and develop policy proposals based on data, as well as their professional military judgement, that would enhance the readiness, lethality, and effectiveness of our military.”
Over the course of its research, the panel met with transgender service members, commanding officers, and military and civilian medical professionals experienced in the care of individuals who are gender dysphoric.
The panel ultimately recommended, and the Defense Department’s best military minds agreed, that the risks associated with letting gender dysphoric individuals serve were too significant.
For the military to be expected to make accommodations for those who suffer from gender dysphoria and exempt them from the same mental, physical, and health-based standards that apply to all other service members could undermine readiness, harm unit cohesion, and place undue burdens on commands — all of which could seriously impact military lethality.
The Mattis memo does a thorough job of defining the sacrifice and hardships the military demands from everyone who serves.
Troops are expected to meet rigorous physical standards. They are often required to forego many individual freedoms.
They are limited in what they can say, how politically active they can become, where they can go, who they may associate with, and are subject to a variety of other restrictions — all of which are necessary to keep the military strong and ready always to respond to the nation’s needs.
The stress of fighting can take serious mental and physical tolls on even the healthiest of individuals. That is why those who serve must meet stringent qualifications.
They must be able to survive and function for extended periods under great strain. In the military, a unit is only as strong as its weakest individual.
When a ship is ready to get underway and one of its sailors becomes undeployable for any reason, the ship often must sail with one less person in a workspace. Having fewer people to accomplish the same amount of work means heavier workloads and more hours spent standing watches for everyone else. The same is true for Marine Corps and Army units everywhere.
That, in part, is why people can be disqualified for service for any one of a long list of ailments. They must be free of medical conditions or physical defects that could possibly result in extensive time lost for treatment. Every individual who serves must be able to meet the rigorous requirements demanded in harsh environments.
The Pentagon’s own data indicate that gender dysphoria is a mental health condition that may require significant medical treatment. Individuals suffering from the condition suffer high rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
They are almost eight times as likely as other service members to attempt suicide (12 percent compared to 1.5 percent). And troops with gender dysphoria are nine times more likely than other service members to need mental-health intervention.
The sex reassignment surgery that may be necessary as treatment for gender dysphoria can take an individual out of service for more than a year. How fair is that to the rest of the military?
The Mattis memo is impressive in its impartiality and fairness. The secretary recommended that transgender people be allowed to serve — as long as they were willing to do so in the uniform of their biological sex and are willing to meet the standards required for that sex.
Allowing service members to change their gender without changing any biological features is unfair to other military members. To allow a biological male who identifies as a female to be held to female standards could understandably cause resentment within a unit and affect good order and discipline.
It is unfair to other females who may be required to compete against that individual in sports and training events and it is unfair to other males who would see that individual as being held to less-rigorous physical requirements.
Mattis’ recommendations to the president upend many of the decisions implemented by the secretary’s predecessor, Ashton Carter, who was so eager to allow all transgender people to serve that he seemingly overlooked common sense and, more importantly, fairness across the board.
In the February memo, Mattis carefully explains the obvious: There are anatomical differences between males and females, and troops have a right to every reasonable expectation of privacy.
The policy guidelines outlined by Mattis reflect his judicious decision-making abilities and his wisdom.
We should be thankful that, in response to the Mattis recommendations, the president has ultimately left authority for implementing appropriate guidelines on the service of transgender people to the secretary of defense and the secretary of homeland security (who oversees the Coast Guard).
It’s good policy. It’s fair to all the troops. It requires that transgender individuals be just as mentally and physically able to serve as every other individual who volunteers.
Holding all service members to the same expectations and demands builds unit cohesion and protects readiness — and that ultimately makes for a stronger and more effective military.