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Defense Secretary Carter: Transgender People Shouldn't Be Denied Military Service

New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Sunday that transgender people shouldn't be prevented from serving in the U.S. military solely based on their gender identity, noting it should not "preclude" them from service.

Carter made the comments at a town-hall event in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in response to a question from Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, a doctor, about transgender soldiers serving in an "austere environment" like the one in Kandahar.

" (W)e want to make our conditions and experience of service as attractive as possible to our best people in our country. 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," Carter said. "I don't think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them."

The American Military Partner Association, a nonprofit support network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families, welcomed Carter's remarks but urged he go further and order a review of "outdated regulations that prevent the estimated 15,500 transgender service members currently in uniform from serving openly and honestly."

"Secretary Carter is right in that their ability to serve is the only thing that should matter," AMPA President Ashley Broadway-Mack said in a statement. "Thousands of transgender service members are currently doing the job, and doing it well, but are forced to do so in silence - forced to lie about something as fundamental as who they are in order to continue to serve."

Last year, the Defense Department got rid of a regulation designating "sexual and gender identity disorders" as cause for administrative discharge, according to the Palm Center, which conducts research on sexual minorities in the military. The center said that meant the military branches should be able to allow transgender soldiers to stay in service.

Ehrenfeld told NBC News that he asked Carter about transgender soldiers because he had personally cared for a transgender soldier in his role as a physician in Afghanistan the last six months and interacted with several others.

"I am continually struck by how these individuals, who risk their lives every day to support our mission, live not in fear of the enemy, but rather in fear of being discovered for who they are," Ehrenfeld said in an email. "I am hopeful that someday the outdated policy excluding transgender individuals from serving will be lifted. In my experience, transgender service members are some of the bravest soldiers we've got."

Carter earlier in February replaced Chuck Hagel, who said in May 2014 that he was open to a review of the policy. Hagel announced his resignation last November after less than two years leading the Defense Department.

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