For Paula Neira, joining the military felt like a calling.
She graduated from the Naval Academy with distinction in 1985, and served in Operation Desert Storm. She had hoped to spend decades fighting for her country.
But Neira resigned her commission in 1991 after realizing “there was no way to continue to serve and live authentically.”
Neira, who is transgender, instead spent the following decades fighting for equality in the military. That’s how, she says, she’s found a way to continue serving her country.
Now, the Bowie resident said she is watching as a series of presidential tweets threatens to rollback the progress she’s fought for. The future of transgender people’s ability to serve openly in the military remains in question.
President Trump on Wednesday announced via Twitter that the United States will no longer “accept or allow...... Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” The surprise announcement could reverse a year-old Obama-era policy that allowed transgender Americans to serve openly.
Then on Thursday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a memo that the military will continue to permit transgender people to serve openly until Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has received Trump’s “direction” to change the policy and figured out how to implement it.
Neira said there is no reason to discriminate against people who volunteer to serve.
“There are thousands of transgender people in the military today,” said Neira, the clinical program director at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Transgender Health. “They are serving all over the world and contributing to the mission. They are doing their job, they are doing it well and they are doing it with honor.”
Neira, a registered nurse and a member of the Maryland bar, said "there is no medical science that backs up a ban of transgender people."
Trump cited the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” of having transgender people in the military as the reason behind his decision. He tweeted that he consulted with generals and military experts before making his announcement. Less than a month ago, Mattis told military service chiefs to spend another six months weighing the costs and benefits of allowing transgender individuals to enlist.
The Pentagon has not released data on the number of transgender people currently serving. A Rand Corp. study has estimated the number at between 1,320 and 6,630 out of 1.3 million active-duty troops.
The federally funded think tank has also estimated that each year between 29 and 129 service members will seek transition-related care that could disrupt their ability to deploy. It also estimated that extending gender transition-related health care coverage to transgender personnel would cost the military $2.4 million to $8.4 million a year, out of a yearly Pentagon budget of more than $600 billion.
The Dunford statement suggests that Mattis was given no presidential direction on changing the transgender policy. Mattis has been on vacation this week and has been publicly silent amid questions about Trump’s announced ban. His spokesmen declined to comment Thursday. On Wednesday they said the Pentagon would work with the White House and provide revised guidance to the military “in the near future.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had made "a military decision." She said it was his judgment that allowing transgender service "erodes military readiness and unit cohesion."
Sanders said the "president's national security team was part of this consultation" and that Trump "informed" Mattis of his decision immediately after he made it on Tuesday.
The Pride Foundation of Maryland said they are monitoring the situation.
The announcement drew condemnation from the many in Maryland’s overwhelmingly Democratic congressional delegation.
Rep. Anthony Brown said Wednesday that Trump’s decision marked a “a dark day for our Armed Forces and our nation.” Brown, who spent 30 years in the United States Army, said he will defend transgender people’s rights to serve their country.
“President Trump's rationale harkens back to a more ignorant and intolerant time, where words like ‘disruption’ and ‘not a social experiment’ were used to keep women, African Americans and gays and lesbians from fully participating in our military services,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said in a statement.
Republican Rep. Andy Harris, the only other member of the Maryland delegation to wear a uniform, “fully supports the President’s decision,” said spokeswoman Jacque Clark. Harris served as a medical officer in the Naval Reserve.
Sen. Ben Cardin and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, both Democrats, have released statements denouncing Trump’s tweets.
Matt Thorn is the executive director of OutServe-SLDN, which represents LGBT military community members. Should Trump turn his tweet into policy, Thorn said, the group intends to challenge him in court.
“It’s a crushing feeling when you want to serve your country and be a leader and defend this country’s Constitution and someone tells you that you can’t,” said Thorn, who lives in Baltimore.
Neira said she knows there are many steps between a tweet and a policy implementation. She said she plans to fight Trump’s intentions every day.
“The Navy didn’t teach me how to surrender,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
In an earlier version, the photo caption misspelled Paula Neira’s name. The Sun regrets the error.