Uniformed and civilian Defense Department officials defended LGBTQ+ service members and diversity and inclusion efforts on Wednesday at the Pentagon’s annual Pride Month celebration.

Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros emphasized that younger generations, which the military has had difficulty recruiting, hold diversity and inclusion efforts in high regard when weighing professional options.

“It is a diverse talent pool that ultimately contributes to our success on the battlefield and beyond‚” Cisneros, who serves as the Pentagon’s chief of diversity and inclusion, told the audience. “Diversity and inclusion are imperative to recruit and retain the best and brightest talent, we must ensure that we reach out to all communities.”

The military has suffered from a recruiting crisis in recent years. Aside from the Marine Corps, each service is projecting shortfalls in Fiscal Year 2023 as the branches struggle to attract new recruits. The Army is facing the largest deficit, with the service projected to miss its recruiting mark by 10,000 soldiers by the end of the season.

Still, the Pentagon’s diversity and inclusion efforts have not been enacted without controversy. Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have voiced their opposition to numerous initiatives, which include increasing diversity among service members, opening up the services to transgender recruits and researching racial biases in the armed forces.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) accused President Joe Biden last year of trying to build a “woke Army,” and in May, Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) introduced the WARRIOR Act in the House to address what he views as the “politicization” of the armed forces.

“The Pentagon has diverted its focus from lethality and have instead pushed initiatives that have politicized our war-fighting ranks and harmed our military readiness,” Waltz said in a statement. “[Y]oung Americans don’t want to join what was once a trusted institution that has become overly politicized and hyper-focused on DEI initiatives.”

The legislation introduced by Waltz would strip Pentagon funding for investigating extremism and conducting “race-conscious” promotions and assignments, among other items.

Diversity and inclusion, meanwhile, comprises much more than efforts to get people in the door of the recruiting center, Space Force Lt. Gen. DeAnna Burt said. Initiatives also focus on the service members’ experiences while in uniform. If local laws make a service member feel unsafe, Burt told the audience, she has to reconsider placing the most qualified candidate in a given location.

“Those barriers are a threat to our readiness, and they have a direct correlation to the resiliency and well-being of our most important operational advantage: our people,” she added.

In addition to the more than one million military veterans, there are roughly 65,000 LGTBQ+ troops currently serving in the armed forces, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Navy Cmdr. Emily Shilling, one of the highest ranking openly transgender officers in the military, came out two days after then-President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender troops went into effect. For Shilling, inclusion for transgender service members is a matter of life and death.

Shilling told the audience Wednesday that over the course of the two years that the transgender ban was in place, 31 transgender service members died by suicide. In the two years since the ban was revoked, that number dropped to two, she said.

“Service members do not die because the service shows pride, love and rainbows,” she said. “Pride saves lives, and pride is a testament that the [LGTBQ+] community endures and will endure. ... We — you and I — do not leave our people behind. And we owe it to those 31 to get better.”

LGBTQ+ troops have historically faced headwinds to their service. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower banned LGTBQ+ people from holding jobs within the federal government. The Lavender Scare, as it was called, led to roughly 10,000 federal government employees being investigated, interrogated and fired from the workforce.

In 1993, the administration of President Bill Clinton instituted the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” While prohibiting discrimination of closeted gay and lesbian service members, the policy barred LGTBQ+ troops from serving openly in the armed forces. The policy was repealed in September 2011.

Just one year after transgender troops were granted permission in 2016 to join the military, Trump tweeted that the military would be implementing a ban for those same service members. Biden reversed the ban during his first month in office.

“The all-volunteer force thrives when it is composed of diverse Americans who can meet the rigorous standards for military service, and an inclusive military strengthens our national security,” according to a release from the White House announcing the lifting of the ban.

Zamone “Z” Perez is a reporter at Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.

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