President Joe Biden honored the late Ash Carter, the former defense secretary who opened the way for women to fight in combat and for transgender personnel to serve, as a “force of nature” at a memorial service on Thursday at Washington National Cathedral.

“His genius was evident,” Biden said. “His integrity unfailing. And his commitment to service before self was literally inspiring.”

Carter was 68 when he died in October of a heart attack. He served under President Barack Obama from 2015 to January 2017, while Biden was vice president.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is interviewed in his Pentagon office, Jan. 18, 2017.

“Ash always took the hardest jobs, seemingly impossible missions,” Biden said. “Because he believed he could make a difference. And he did make a difference.”

Carter immediately saw his tenure challenged by the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and China’s rapid militarization of islands in the South China Sea, even as the administration tried to shift its aircraft and warships to the Pacific to meet a rising Beijing.

During a 35-year career in a variety of Pentagon posts, Carter, a Philadelphia native, pushed through what he would continue to cite as one of his proudest accomplishments: the effort to speed the design and production of a new up-armored vehicle to better protect troops against roadside bombs. More than 24,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles were manufactured and shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He took personal pleasure in busting through bureaucratic red tape,” Biden said. “And woe unto the staffer who failed to follow through on an assignment that Ash had given him.”

Biden added, “he made his mission to work at war speed to get our warfighters the best possible protection we could give them.”

But it was two personnel policies as secretary that would distinguish Carter’s legacy: opening all combat roles to women in 2015 and allowing transgender personnel to serve.

In the years since, female troops have broken through in ways that were previously unavailable to them, including the first women to graduate U.S. Army Ranger School, the first Army female infantry officer, the first Army female Green Beret and the first woman to graduate Naval Special Warfare training.

In June 2016, Carter ended the ban on transgender troops.

“Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who can best accomplish the mission,” Carter said at the time.

President Donald Trump reinstated a ban against transgender troops in 2017, which resulted in a yearslong legal battle as some troops who had come out under the previous policy found themselves in limbo. Biden overturned Trump’s policy in 2021, again allowing transgender troops to serve openly.

Associated Press writers Chris Megerian and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

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