People who are transgender can now serve openly in the United States military.
"It's the right thing to do for our people and for the force," Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said while announcing the decision Thursday.
"We’re talking about talented Americans who are serving with distinction or who want the opportunity to serve. We can’t allow barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission," Carter said.
The Pentagon doesn't currently know how many transgender troops are in the military because they are discharged if they reveal they are transgender.
However, the Palm Center estimates there are 15,500 actively serving transgender members of the U.S. military. That makes the Department of Defense the largest employer of transgender people in the country, the Human Rights Campaign noted.
The announcement removes one of the last bans on service in the military, The Associated Press reports. It's the second significant shift by the military in the past five years. In 2011, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy – which banned gay troops from openly discussing their sexuality – was repealed.
Policy will be phased in over the next year
Implementation of the Department of Defense's new policy begins today, and will be phased in over the next 12 months, Carter said.
Starting immediately, service members will no longer be involuntarily separated, discharged or denied reenlistment based on their gender identity, and service members currently serving will be able to do so openly.
By Oct. 1, transgender troops should be able to begin formally changing their gender identification in the Pentagon's personnel system, as well as receive necessary medical care and treatment.
Then by next July, Carter says the military will start allowing transgender individuals to enlist, so long as they meet the required standards and are stable in their identified gender for 18 months.
Carter says the full policy must be "completely implemented" no later than July 1, 2017.
For more information on the implementation process, check out this fact sheet.
Some say Pentagon moved too fast
Carter said last year the Department of Defense would study the "readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly."
Thursday's policy announcement comes despite "many senior military leaders" believing the Pentagon moved too quickly, with arguments it hasn't resolved all the issues related to the Department of Defense's implementation plan, the Los Angeles Times says.
Carter will meet with senior leaders about their concerns and suggestions for how to make the process go smoothly, the paper adds.