The new secretary of Defense traveled to Afghanistan over the weekend to meet with U.S. troops, where he took questions from service members at a townhall event in Kandahar.
One lieutenant commander asked, “What are your thoughts on transgender service members serving in an austere environment like this here in Kandahar?”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s predecessor, Chuck Hagel, said in May that he was open to reviewing the policy on transgender service members. “Every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it,” he told ABC, adding that the transgender issue was “a bit more complicated because it has a medical component to it.” LGBT activists saw Hagel’s departure as a setback for the movement to convince Congress.
Carter responded that he comes at the issue “from a fundamental starting point.”
“It’s not something I’ve studied a lot since I became secretary of Defense… we want to make our conditions and experience of service as attractive as possible to our best people in our country,” he told the troops.
“And I’m very open-minded about — otherwise about what their personal lives and proclivities are, provided they can do what we need them to do for us. That’s the important criteria. Are they going to be excellent service members? And I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them.”
Carter was also asked to expound on the micromanagement of the Pentagon by the White House, an environment that led to Hagel’s departure.
Hagel’s successor called it a “very, very, very fair question.”
“So we have two things that we owe our elected leadership as an institution. The first, of course, is excellent carrying out of their policies and orders, which you do so magnificently,” Carter said. “The second is advising the president, our elected leadership, on what they ought to ask us to do. And on that first part I’ll just tell you where I come from, which is I think that the president deserves from me, and I pledge to him and then I did in my confirmation hearing which, as you’ve indicated, my most candid advice.”
“I’m not going to pull any punches, I’ll say it exactly the way I see it. That’s what he wants. That’s what he deserves. He won’t necessarily do what I recommend, OK? Fair enough. He’s the president, I’m not. But he deserves to hear what I say and what I think. And that’s one of the reasons that he hired me.”
Carter also stressed his responsibility “to ensure that the president receives professional military advice also, which is another source of tremendous experience and expertise.”
“And so my view is that I know the president, I think he is somebody who really wants to think through problems, and who also is quite aware of how many issues there are around the world that bubble up every day,” he said. “One person, no matter how able they are, couldn’t possibly get on top of all those things. He needs help. And one of my jobs is to help him, and then to carry out those instructions with the excellence that we have.”
“And I think we’re capable of doing that. I think we’ve shown abundant evidence that we can do that and will continue to do that. So to me it’s that simple. I’m going to play it absolutely straight. That’s the kind of person I am. That’s the kind of secretary of defense he has told me he wants. And that’s the kind of secretary of defense I’ll be. So it’s as simple as that to me.”