04/09/2023 07:00 AM EDT
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly is seen in her office at the Pentagon.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly sits for an interview in her office at the Pentagon on April 3. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
Shawn Skelly was a Navy commander working to help fend off roadside bomb attacks when she came to a realization about herself — one that meant her career in the military was over.
It was 2006, and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which permitted gay and lesbian Americans to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual identity under wraps, was still in effect. Skelly had identified as a man up until that point and — now that she felt she could no longer do so — decided to retire from military service as soon as possible.
Skelly, then stationed at a Marine Corps base in Virginia, told her commanding general she was out.
|Skelly speaks during the Center for a|
New American Security Mission Brief
at the Pentagon on Feb. 15, 2022. |
Brittany A. Chase/U.S. Air Force
“I had fear at that time,” Skelly said in an interview. “I determined quickly that I needed to get out, get out safely, because I understood what I needed to do to be the best, healthiest version of myself.” It took two years for her to make the leap, and she left in 2008.
Now she’s back at the Pentagon, this time as a civilian. As assistant secretary of defense for readiness, Skelly oversees military preparedness for warfighting, including training programs, equipment safety and munitions supplies.
And Skelly has a message for Republicans accusing the Department of Defense of promoting diversity and inclusion in the armed forces at the expense of military readiness: their campaign is what’s hurting the military’s warfighting capabilities.
Skelly, speaking at the Pentagon in her first in-depth interview since taking the job in 2021.:
“If you want to be ready, then you have to ensure that everybody that is in your force can be their best selves and contribute as a member of a team and be seen as valuable,”
She is the DoD’s highest-ranking openly transgender official, and the second to hold an office that requires Senate confirmation. The first was Rachel Levine, who serves as assistant secretary of health.
Skelly’s appointment was welcomed as a powerful signal of support by transgender troops now serving openly since President Joe Biden overturned a Trump-era ban on trans service members.
But Republicans in Congress are looking to roll back those changes through proposed legislation to ban transgender people from serving in the military.
It’s part of a larger push by some Republican lawmakers who argue that personnel policies like diversity trainings, racial justice education and events like a recent drag show on a military base alienate some potential recruits and distract from the forces’ main mission: fighting wars and protecting the homefront.
“When I talk to people and say, ‘Well, why aren’t you looking to join the military?’ A lot of them say, ‘Well, the military has been over-politicized. Well, the military has gone woke,’ said Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.) during a March 9 hearing with the military’s senior enlisted leadership. “We’re saying that this new focus, this new shift, this new kind of woke ideology is not impacting recruitment and not impacting our readiness and lethality? I have a hard time believing that.”
Skelly said she regularly speaks with members of “Gen Z” who express reservations about serving in the military because they fear they or their friends won’t be treated with respect.
“I don’t know what ‘wokeism’ is, it’s not a defined term,” she said. But “If people understand that they’re not going to get a fair shake, because they come from a specific ethnic origin, or based on their identity, or based on who they love, we are going to be worse off because not enough Americans are going to want to be a part of the U.S. military.”