Edited by Jeff Zeberlein
On Friday, April 14, 2023, the SAIS Pride Club hosted a panel with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn G. Skelly. Skelly is the highest-ranking transgender official in the Department of Defense and is the first person to hold her title in a Senate-confirmed capacity. Dr. Nora Bensahel and David Barno, both Visiting Professors and Senior Fellows at the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, co-chaired the panel.
Wilson Trawick, the former president of SAIS Pride and one of the event organizers, said that he connected with Skelly via Out in National Security, a networking and mentorship organization that Skelly co-founded. Trawick said that the event would “help to ensure the folks that populate SAIS’s halls feel empowered to serve.” He believes that highlighting senior queer leaders helps demonstrate that that is possible.
During her remarks, Skelly described the mass transfer of American military equipment into Ukraine as unprecedented in the history of American security assistance. She also responded to concerns about recruitment, noting that while retention is strong, recruiting numbers are indeed slipping. Finally, commenting on her experience as a transgender person in national security, she underscored the importance of creating spaces where people can be comfortable being their authentic selves.
Skelly began by describing the vastness of the military and the significance of her role. As “principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense on all matters related to the readiness of the total force,”—which includes active-duty military, the national guard, army reserves, and over 500,000 contractors—Skelly oversees one of the “biggest enterprises on the planet.” U.S. military land makes up a landmass equal to the size of the state of Virginia. The risk of military action increases “any time that one of us loses sight of that sheer complexity,” she said. “It is truly a global, nuclear-armed herd of cats, and we’re trying to steer it.”
On the one hand, Skelly’s role boils down to making sure that the military is ready to do what it has planned to do. This means making sure that the functional, logistical, and physical elements of a mission are ready when they are supposed to be. On the other hand, though, “the art of being ready” is the ability to “adjust when reality comes around,” Skelly said.
Sometimes, the reality is an authoritarian leader invading a sovereign country. While U.S. intelligence had forecasted a Russian invasion of Ukraine, giving the U.S. a larger preparation window than skeptical European countries, getting the military ready for a Ukraine support contingency still required a full about-face.
The first—and largest—priority was to deliver equipment. Since the start of the war, the U.S. has been “taking things off our shelves and handing them to Ukraine in a way that we never have done before,” said Skelly.
Although U.S. troops do not fight in Ukraine directly, the invasion also prompted changes in force readiness. In the months leading up to the invasion, the U.S. moved additional troops into Europe and kept troops in Europe who were supposed to return home. Those troops went forward less ready for combat than they would have if they were deployed as scheduled, much later.
Shifting from the topic of Ukraine, Barno asked Skelly for her views on the military’s recent recruiting deficit. Barno noted that the army missed its 2022 recruiting goal by 15,000 soldiers or 25 percent of its target.
Skelly responded that although accession numbers are indeed down, the military has retained more personnel than it has in the past. “That’s a way to get by,” she said. She caveated, though, that the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic downturn may have prompted some of these people to stay in.
The long-term challenges of declining force numbers remain. Absent adequate forces, missions are more difficult to execute. In the Air Force, for example, being down “700 defenders” means that it’s going to be “harder to make airplanes ready to fly.” Skelly admitted that these deficits mean that “people will have to work longer, harder, and hopefully smarter to make up for that effect.”
Skelly believes that addressing the crisis requires a long-term civil-military conversation with the nation. Part of that means encouraging Americans to see the benefits of military service. She stated that veterans are some of the highest-performing American citizens; they vote more and are higher in demand by employers. She wants to ensure that Americans are aware of opportunities to serve and the benefits of serving.
Barno and Bensahel then asked Skelly about the obstacles she has faced throughout her journey and what advice she would give. For most of her career, Skelly says, she was fiercely reserved about her personal life. Her father was a Vietnam veteran before the Tonkin Gulf incident and a New York City police officer. She learned through her upbringing to “never talk about yourself and your needs,” and that relevance should always come from being a trusted performer in her job.
It took her a long time to discover the “power of being your authentic self.” When she was comfortable enough to be herself, doors opened because people could see her as a “fellow person.”
She has found that she gets the most help by helping others. “Some people see me as a mentor. My response is, ‘I thought we were just friends.’”
Skelly feels that in 2023 “we’ve slipped remarkably backward—in an almost vertical grade—in the public space with regards to folks who challenge the binary.” She believes it is critical to create spaces where people can be authentic and open.
During Q&A, Skelly responded to a question about whether it was safe for minorities to enter the military. “By and large, yes,” she responded. She noted that senior leaders all believe that a person who steps forward to serve their country should be treated with respect, but that leadership is still working on how to portray that.
She also commented on the effect of sexual assault on military readiness. “One assault is too many,” she said. While she does not have a direct people job, Skelly does have a responsibility for the health—including physical, mental, and behavioral health—and safety of the force. She said that sexual assault has deleterious effects on force readiness, and if aircraft is going down because the mental health of pilots has been harmed, then leadership has a responsibility to address that problem.
At the end of the event, Trawick asked Skelly what keeps her up at night. Her response: “a nuclear-armed power led by an autocrat who I don’t think will leave office willingly has decided to take a gamble in Ukraine. He has mobilized a coalition against it. I don’t know anyone who’s come up to say how that ends.”
While the future is unknowable, Skelly knows that the military must be ready for anything. For her, taking care of servicemembers means ensuring they all serve in an environment that values their commitment.