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Transgender Troops Argue For Military Inclusion Before House Committee


There was a remarkable hearing today on Capitol Hill, and we're not talking about the one with the president's former lawyer. For the first time, transgender people on active duty in the U.S. military spoke publicly before Congress about their service. Here is Army Captain Alivia Stehlik, a physical therapist just back from a combat zone.


ALIVIA STEHLIK: I returned to the United States from Afghanistan just over a month ago. My experience in Afghanistan has only confirmed what I already knew, that I am a more effective soldier, officer and physical therapist having gone through transition. I belong in a combat arms unit taking care of my soldiers.

SHAPIRO: This hearing comes as a court battle continues over whether transgender people should be allowed to serve. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here with us in the studio. Hi, Tom.


SHAPIRO: The Trump administration is trying to present - prevent transgender people from serving. The Pentagon says there are more than 14,000 transgender troops right now. So what is their situation at the moment?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, those now serving can remain and serve openly, and that came about under the Obama administration. And these five service members who spoke today - all on active duty and some of whom continue to deploy sometimes to combat zones. And the issue is those who want to join the military. That will be restricted for transgender individuals under the new policy. It says those who have undergone gender transition will not be able to serve.

Those who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria, meaning you're uncomfortable with your birth gender, may serve but only in their biological sex. Now, the White House wants restrictions because they say it could hurt readiness of anyone going through transition and also the medical expenses and also hurts what's called unit cohesion.

SHAPIRO: And so was today's hearing sort of a rebuttal to the White House? Was that the intention?

BOWMAN: Yeah. The Democrats control the House Armed Services Committee now, so they were kind of knocking holes in those views, especially about the readiness to fight. Those testifying, three from the Army, two from the Navy, all have deployed to combat zones and have stellar records, some with medals and commendations. And they agreed to speak publicly to argue their transgender status has not impacted on their service and say their fellow service members agree. Let's listen to Captain Jennifer Peace, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. And she was quite tough, and she said she would never let readiness suffer.


JENNIFER PEACE: What I can tell you is that no one cares about readiness more than a company commander. I will be the first person to kick out a transgender service member if they are not able to meet the standards, if they are unable to deploy, engage and destroy the enemies of the United States.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So where does the court battle over this issue stand right now?

BOWMAN: Well, there were four separate cases. All judges - federal judges - all issued injunctions to halt the new Trump policy; Supreme Court lifted most of those injunctions, though one is still in effect. And we could - that injunction could be lifted as early as next week. Supreme Court is siding with the Trump administration, so these new restrictions could go into effect fairly soon.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman covering today's hearing on Capitol Hill with transgender troops testifying before Congress. Thanks so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.