Trump banning transgender military service driving wedge through vets in Congress

- President Donald Trump's decision to ban transgender service in the armed forces drove a wedge through military veterans in Congress, with one camp standing squarely behind the commander in chief and the other decrying his order as an ugly attack on dedicated troops.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Army helicopter pilot who lost her legs and partial use of her right arm during the Iraq war, called Trump's announcement discriminatory.

"When my Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq, I didn't care if the American troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender or anything else," she said. "All that mattered was they didn't leave me behind."

Duckworth said if a person's willing to risk their life as a member of the armed forces "and you can do the job, you should be able to serve - no matter your gender identity, sexual orientation or race."

Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., said Trump's decision is understandable given the mounting concern among members of Congress over the amount of money the Pentagon is required to spend on gender transition surgeries and hormone therapy. Russell, a retired Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said service members undergoing these medical procedures often aren't ready to deploy.

"I'm not surprised that the administration has come out like this," Russell said on C-Span's Washington Journal.

Trump's tweets announcing the ban came as the administration and House GOP leaders were trying to work out a problem involving medical costs for service members seeking to transition to another gender while serving in the military, an issue that had created problems for a sweeping spending bill.

Social conservatives, led by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., were pressing for an amendment to the spending bill blocking funding for such costs, including reassignment surgery. The House narrowly defeated Hartzler's measure last week, yet she and other conservatives were trying to revive it. That sparked a battle with Republican moderates who had threatened to block the House from turning to the spending bill.

According to a senior Republican aide, House leaders were taken by surprise when Trump announced the broader ban; they had been pressing for a more narrow response. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to publicly discuss internal talks.

In the Senate, John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy pilot during the Vietnam war, blasted Trump's decision and criticized the president for making the announcement over Twitter.

"There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military - regardless of their gender identity," said McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

But Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Trump made the right call by reversing an Obama administration directive issued in 2016 that allowed transgender service members to serve openly in the armed forces.

"National security should trump social experimentation, always," Hunter said. "It's about time that a decision is made to restore the warrior culture and allow the U.S. military to get back to business."

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., echoed Hunter's remarks.

"I think back to my days in the military and wonder how it would work," Inhofe, an Army veteran, said of the intensely close living and working quarters that service members inhabit.

"It's a housing problem. There are other problems," Inhofe said. "Those of us who have been in the service can see that it would be a difficult thing to deal with."

But Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called Trump's transgender ban "a divisive political move" and a "retreat in the march toward equality."

Reed, a West Point graduate who later served in the 82nd Airborne Division, added that Trump announced the ban on the anniversary of President Harry Truman's order desegregating the U.S. military.

"This discriminatory policy denies Americans, no matter how skilled and qualified they are, the opportunity to serve," said Reed, the top ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
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A former U.S. naval combat-tested officer said she feels angry that President Donald Trump is saying transgender veterans like her should be considered unfit to serve.
 
   Another transgender service member said he will not be kicked out without a fight.
 
   Transgender veterans and active-duty troops spoke Wednesday about Trump's Twitter pronouncement banning transgender people from military service.
 
   Here are their stories:
 
   ----------
 
   OFFENSIVE TO MILITARY VALUES
 
   Paula M. Neira, who left the Navy in 1991 and transitioned to female after leaving active duty, said she was angry at Trump's announcement. It brought up bad memories for the naval officer, who served on Sept. 11, 2001.
 
   She said the commander in chief is sending the message that the country does not want transgender troops.
 
   "Nobody who is willing to volunteer to defend our country should ever be told that they're not fit because of other people's prejudice, and not because of any military necessity," she said.
 
   ----------
 
   VOWING TO FIGHT
 
   Rudy Akbarian, 26, said he will not leave the armed forces without a fight.
 
   "I'm just serving as a soldier just like anybody else," Akbarian said.
 
   His chain-of-command was supportive of him as he transitioned from female to male.
 
   "Everybody is hurt. Everybody is scared," he said. "This is people's lives we're talking about. People who enlisted nearly 20 years ago and now 18 or 19 years in, now that's being taken away and they don't get to retire?"
 
   ----------
 
   `HEARTBREAK'
 
   Alaina Kupec, a Navy intelligence officer from 1992 until 1995, said she felt "heartbreak" after she heard about Trump's tweet. The 48-year-old transitioned to life as a woman in 2013.
 
   "It just really saddened me for the transgender sailors and soldiers who are serving around the world today and are selflessly giving themselves to protect our country," said Kupec, who lives in Orange, New Jersey.
 
   ----------
 
   `FORCED BACK INTO THE CLOSET'
 
   Air Force veteran Vanessa Sheridan said transgender people have always served in the military but now they are going to have to hide their identities if there is a new policy.
 
   "My biggest concern now is going to be that transgender people are going to be forced back into the closet," said Sheridan, who is director of transgender relations and community engagement at Center on Halsted in Chicago.
 
   ----------
 
   `FIRED BY TWEET'
 
   Capt. Jacob Eleazer, 31, who serves in the Kentucky Army National Guard, took the day off from his job as a therapist in Lexington to figure out the situation.
 
   "Fired by tweet. It was honestly pretty shocking," he said.
 
   ----------
 
   FEAR OF THE FUTURE
 
   Combat veteran Shane Ortega, a transgender man in Los Angeles who served in the Army and Marines for more than a decade, said troops who are forced out may get a bad conduct discharge for being transgender, jeopardizing their VA benefits and future.
 
   "That's the equivalent of being a convicted felon in American society," said Ortega, 30, who transitioned to a male in 2009, seven years before leaving the military after serving multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They will not get gainful employment."
 
   ----------
 
   `PEOPLE KNOW WHO WE ARE NOW'
 
   Blake Dremann, a transgender, active-duty Navy lieutenant commander in Washington, said he will continue to serve "regardless of what was said today."
 
   "Trans service members are continuing to do our jobs," said Dremann 36, president of SPARTA a trans advocacy group. "People know who we are now and it becomes personal, especially when you've got families that are going to be affected by this."
 
   ----------
 
   WHAT MATTERS MOST
 
   Emma Shinn, 41, a transgender woman who served in the Marine Corps for 20 years before retiring in 2014, said it was incredibly stressful to work under the military's previous policy that banned LGBT service members.
 
   "It creates a gulf between the service member and his or her fellow Marines," said Shinn, who lives in Castle Rock, Colorado.
 
   What matters most is if "you have my back in a firefight," Shinn said.
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