The Air Force’s top enlisted leader on Wednesday invoked the history of racial segregation in the military and the Tuskegee Airmen as he pledged the service will treat transgender airmen with dignity and respect.

“Right now, our transgender airmen are still just that: They are our airmen,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said in response to an audience question at the Air Force Association‘s Air Space Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “And until otherwise, we take care of them just like any other airmen.”

Wright, who is black, then referenced the Tuskegee Airmen, the first squadron of black fighter pilots who flew during World War II.

“There was a time when I couldn‘t serve in our United States Air Force,” Wright said. “There was a time when my wife, who is retired, couldn’t serve in our United States Air Force, because [the military] thought it would be too disruptive. So as long as they are in uniform and considered airmen in our United States Air Force, we treat them with the same level of dignity and respect we would treat any other airmen.”

The audience applauded Wright’s remarks.

The issue of whether transgender people can join the military — and whether transgender troops are allowed to stay in uniform — has become increasingly heated since President Trump in July tweeted his intention to bar them from serving. After receiving guidance from the White House in August, the Pentagon began working on a plan to address transgender service, which is due in February. The Pentagon is allowing trans troops to re-enlist while the study is ongoing.

Also during his address to airmen, Wright said he and other chief master sergeants plan to “take as many things off your plate as possible” and free up more time, echoing a common refrain from Air Force leaders at the conference.

“We want to make sure that you have the time to train, to take care of the mission, and you have time to take care of each other, and then you have time to take care of your families,” Wright said.

To do that, Wright said the Air Force has already enacted changes to the Enlisted Professional Military Education system, which he called “a big win.” Wright also said the Air Force is considering eliminating performance report requirements for airmen first class, which he said put too much of a burden on airmen.

Wright also pledged to keep helping Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein eliminate unnecessary computer-based training and other additional duties.

And Wright said the Air Force wants to streamline the process for submitting airmen for Outstanding Airman of the Year. Today, those who want to nominate an airman for the award must submit a form with 27 bullet points describing why they are deserving of recognition. Wright said the nomination form will be reduced to 16 lines ― 12 for leadership and job performance and the remaining four for the whole airman concept.

“These are the small things,” Wright said. “In and of themselves, they seem like small change, but we‘ll continue to take these small things away from you so you can focus on what’s important.”

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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