WASHINGTON, D.C. -- 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."
But Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., applauded Trump for reversing an Obama administration directive issued in 2016 that allowed transgender service members to serve openly in the armed forces.
Russell, a retired Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Trump prevented the "implementation of a policy that does not enhance readiness, forces all Americans to spend taxes on unnecessary elective surgeries, and would force many military physicians, leaders, and counselors to violate rights of conscience protected under the 1st Amendment."
Despite Trump's announcement, transgender individuals still will be allowed to serve until Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has received Trump's direction to change the policy and figured out how to implement it, the nation's top military officer said Thursday.
In a memo to all military service chiefs, commanders and enlisted military leaders, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford said "there will be no modifications" to the current policy for now. He added that all military personnel will continue to be treated with respect.
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 earlier this month, 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.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, supported Trump.
"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.
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania National Guard and an Iraq war veteran, said he didn't support an outright ban on transgender troops. But current Pentagon policies are "insufficient to address the pragmatic and logistical issues surrounding service of transgender individuals," according to Perry.
No changes in military transgender policy for now, top US general says