By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. general said on Tuesday he has urged the Trump administration not to kick transgender service members out of the military despite President Donald Trump's ban on transgender people serving in the armed forces.
Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing whether he agreed that the thousands of transgender men and women now in the military have served with honor and valor.
"I do, Senator," Dunford responded. "I would just probably say that I believe any individual who meets the physical and mental standards, and is worldwide-deployable and is currently serving, should be afforded the opportunity to continue to serve."
Trump in July said he would ban transgender people from the military in a move that would reverse Democratic former President Barack Obama's policy and halt years of efforts to eliminate barriers to military service based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last month said the current policy allowing transgender personnel, including the ability to re-enlist, would remain in place until he advises Trump on how to implement the Republican president's transgender ban.
Under questioning by Gillibrand, Dunford said he had not yet met with transgender service members to discuss the president's ban but added, "I would certainly do that."
Gillibrand said the uncertainty facing transgender service members has been "deeply unsettling" to many members of the committee.
She noted that she has introduced bipartisan legislation with co-sponsors including committee chairman John McCain, a former U.S. Navy pilot who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, that would prevent the Pentagon from throwing out transgender personnel based solely on their gender identity.
Gillibrand asked Dunford, whose reappointment to his post is expected to be confirmed by the Senate, whether he could promise that transgender service members "will not be separated from the armed services based solely on their gender identity?"
"I can promise that that will be my advice," he said. "What I've just articulated is the advice I've provided in private, and I've just provided in public."
Trump's action appealed to his hard-line conservative supporters. The president in February also rescinded protections put in place under Obama for transgender public school students.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Dan Grebler)