As states like Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama pass legislation that prohibits transgender children from seeking gender-affirming care, and women from terminating their pregnancies, service members have been looking to their chains of command for solutions.
While none of the services have explicitly created policies that would address these concerns, the Army made headlines recently when its top enlisted soldier told lawmakers that the service was exploring ways to ensure female soldiers would have access to safe, legal abortions despite being stationed in states where they are being banned.
While nothing has made it out of the idea phase, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston told Army Times that existing Army policies can apply to these situations, as something of a stop-gap while the service figures out what can be done in the long term.
“If you have a soldier that’s struggling with an issue, and there’s no guidelines on it, don’t ignore it,” he said during a May 30 interview. “That’s what it means to be ‘in my squad.’ "
For example, soldiers are already able to take leave to get medical care when an on-post facility doesn’t offer it. Commanders, theoretically, already have the authority to grant non-chargeable leave ― meaning it wouldn’t come out of vacation time ― so their troops can leave the state to secure a legal abortion.
While military treatment centers aren’t subject to state laws, military doctors aren’t able to perform abortions because of a 1976 law that prohibits using federal funding to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother.
And unlike organizations like Planned Parenthood, which also can’t use its federal funding on abortions, troops couldn’t just pay out of pocket for an abortion from a military care provider, as those doctors could face licensing repercussions in states where private doctors are subject to criminal prosecution.
So assuming female soldiers are able to find an abortion provider out of state and secure non-chargeable leave from their chains of command, there is still the issue of travel expenses.
That’s something the Army may be able to get covered through legislation, though nothing specifically has been proposed.
“It’s never always going to fit into that mold. It may not say that word. It may not say this word,” Grinston said of current medical travel policies, which do cover expenses. “But you apply a little bit of leadership and think is that’s what’s right for our families. And then get that to somebody that can help.”
And while military health providers are able to prescribe gender-affirming medications and procedures, access could be in jeopardy in states where that care is banned for anyone under 18.
In that case, soldiers can enroll their dependents in the Exceptional Family Member Program, which is designed to ensure soldiers whose families have particular medical needs get stationed in locations where they can be met.
Unfortunately, it’s still not a guaranteed fix. EFMP is notoriously difficult to navigate, with its resources and guidelines inconsistent from installation to installation.
Last year, a group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would prevent troops with transgender dependents from being stationed in states where their care is outlawed, but the House Armed Services Committee hasn’t moved on it.
Grinston said he’s not personally received a lot of questions from soldiers about abortion or transgender policies, but in May, he got a handful of them from a House Appropriations Committee panel.
“We are drafting policies to ensure we take care of our soldiers in an appropriate way,” he told lawmakers, in the wake of a leaked Supreme Court draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. “There are drafts if it were to be overturned, but that would be a decision for the secretary of the Army.”
Grinston has since revised that statement, going back to Capitol Hill in late May to clarify what he meant.
“We’re constantly trying to do what’s right for our service, no matter what’s going on the nation, ” he told Army Times, though there isn’t actually draft policy that is working its way through approval channels. “But this is just the Army. We’ve done this. And then any decisions will be made by the secretary.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT