By Chris Kenning
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Transgender Americans are openly enlisting in the U.S. military for the first time, saying they feel confident that court rulings blocking Republican President Donald Trump's ban on their service will stand.
Nicholas Bade, a 37-year-old transgender man who is among the first of what advocates expect will be a small but historic surge of enlistments, has wanted to join the military since he was young.
"I just couldn't face the idea of doing it as a traditional female," Bade said as he carried a folder of medical documents into a Chicago Air Force recruiting office last week.
Military officials do not know how many transgender people have begun to enlist since Jan. 1, when the Defense Department began accepting openly transgender recruits. But advocates said they believe dozens, if not hundreds, of transgender people will seek to join an estimated 4,000 already serving.
Aspiring transgender military service members in several U.S. states told Reuters they were pushing ahead with enlistments despite lingering uncertainty about whether they would be welcome in the future.
"I'm not worried," said Logan Downs, 23, an Oregon transgender man working to join the Air Force.
Trump caught the Pentagon off-guard when he tweeted in July that transgender people would be banned from serving in the armed forces, citing healthcare costs and unit disruption.
The Obama Administration had decided in June 2016 to allow transgender service members to serve openly, and a deadline of Jan. 1, 2018 was later set to begin accepting recruits. The decision came five years after the military ended its ban on gays serving openly, scrapping the "don't ask, don't tell" policy adopted by the Clinton administration in 1994.
Trump's reversal also blocked government-funded sex-reassignment surgery and other treatments for active-duty personnel.
But federal judges in Baltimore and Washington, where civil rights groups filed lawsuits against the policy in August, blocked Trump's move.
A Pentagon review of the issue will be finalized in February and forwarded to Trump, who is expected to make a decision on the future of transgender personnel in March.
"We're definitely not out of the woods yet, but we have so much momentum," said Nicolas Talbott, 24, of Lisbon, Ohio, one of the transgender people who challenged the ban in court.
This week, he planned to finish his Air Force National Guard enlistment paperwork, he said.
Bianca Wright, of Seattle, has eagerly waited to re-enlist after leaving the military and pursuing a gender transition following 14 years of service, including deployments to Iraq.
After Trump's declaration, "that all came crashing down," she said.
Critics of Trump's ban pointed to a Rand Corporation study that estimated annual transgender healthcare accounted for only $2.4 million to $8.4 million of the more than $50 billion in Defense Department healthcare spending.
Rand also found 18 other countries allowed transgender members to serve, and Australia, Canada, Israel and the United Kingdom saw little or no impact on operational effectiveness.
Starting this month at U.S. recruiting offices, transgender individuals can note if their gender identity does match their gender at birth and disclose related surgeries or treatments on medical forms without being disqualified, said Gaylan Johnson, a spokesman at the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command.
Once in the military, where gender determines housing, uniforms and physical fitness requirements, such recruits would use bathrooms and facilities aligned with their identity, Johnson said.
What kind of acceptance they find from boot camp to active duty may vary by unit, said Zander Keig, a Transgender American Veterans Association board member.
Bade, the Chicago enlistee, said, "The people I know in the military have said, 'I don't care what your gender identity is, as long as you can do your job.'"
(Reporting by Chris Kenning, Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Richard Chang)