No, Actually Transgender Soldiers Make Us A Stronger Military

The criticisms that the military isn't a place for social experiments is true. But don't call acceptance an experiment. Acceptance is a mental frame of mind influenced by culture. Soldiers want the best of the best on their team.
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[This is a guest post by my West Point colleague, MAJ John Spencer]

One of the last barriers to equality in the military is gone. It was simply embarrassing and prevented the best of our society from serving. But the fight for equality isn't over yet. Unfortunately, some service men and women will have to fight culture for the near term.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's decision to lift the Pentagon's ban on transgender people serving openly in the armed forces will make the military stronger. It is another step towards a culture of equality the military as an institution has struggled with in the past.

Leading up to Secretary Carter's decision there were many military and civilian leaders putting up red flags arguing the critical impact it would have on unit readiness and effectiveness. I personally disagree.

I've only served in the military for 23 years and I have already "survived" two major social paradigm shifts. These include the lifting of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in 2011 and the opening of all combat roles to women last year. I say survived because prior to each of these changes the cultural narrative spread by many was how it would destroy the military's readiness and effectiveness in combat.

Culture in the military is a powerful force. It includes the values, beliefs, behaviors, and norms of the entire Army and specific sub-groups or units. It is learned, shared, and internalized by us all. As Cornell's Elizabeth Kier notes, "Few organizations devote as many resources to the assimilation of their members. The emphasis on ceremony and tradition, and the development of a common language and esprit de corps, testify to the strength of the military's organizational culture." I learned much of my beliefs from the older members of my units.

As a member of the infantry I frequently heard how an LGBT soldier or a woman would mean our entire way of life would have to change. The social cohesion of our units would disintegrate. The image of American 18-year-old girls coming home in body bags would sour public support for our war efforts. All in all, we would become weaker as a fighting force.

But in both my deployments to Iraq l learned it didn't matter. I learned that when everything went to hell in combat I wanted the best possible soldier to my left and right. I didn't care about gender, race, or sexual orientation. My deeply ingrained cultural beliefs also cracked when I saw women serving in our ranks, living among us, and performing on mission in some cases better than our own soldiers.

What I also find ironic is the natural acceptance in younger generations who are developed in an environment of inclusiveness. I was reminded of that recently at the United States Military Academy. Every summer thousands of Army cadets deploy into the woods and mountains near West Point, New York. For those cadets going into their senior year they must pass a three-week crucible that includes a grueling twelve-day field training exercise -- think kicking down doors of huts meant to be ISIS compounds or defending land meant to be mountain top combat bases - designed after the Army's Ranger School.

During these drills, males, females, all races, ethnicities, and openly gay cadets are placed into infantry roles to fight simulated battles in realistic combat scenarios. They live, eat, sleep, and conduct personal hygiene together. Again I saw that the only things that mattered to these cadets was everyone doing their assigned job to standard. The difference is they didn't have to undo their cultural beliefs.

Vanguards of what will impact "military's readiness and effectiveness" have repeatedly been disproved. Before lifting of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, soldiers surveyed said it would have little impact on their units' performance. We now know that these soldiers were correct.
Transgender soldiers will face many of the same cultural hurdles that females seeking to fill combat roles recently open currently face. They will be accepted if they meet military standards. Military leaders at the lowest level will have to lead the way of changing culture rather than allowing old beliefs to be passed on. The old breed should take lessons from the new generations.

The criticisms that the military isn't a place for social experiments is true. But don't call acceptance an experiment. Acceptance is a mental frame of mind influenced by culture. Soldiers want the best of the best on their team. Removing barriers to entry for people that can meet military standards makes the military stronger because it gives us access to those in our population who are most fit to serve, regardless of their sexual or gender identity.

John Spencer is a major in the United States Army and scholar with the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy in West Point. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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