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I can recall where I celebrated every Veterans Day since 2005, during my 13 years of service with the United States Army. One was in Baghdad, Iraq, and another was in Kandahar, Afghanistan. My wife was pregnant and alone the Veterans Day I spent in South Korea, and she was raising our three children by herself the year I was conducting training in the Pacific theater. On four other occasions I was in various training exercises across the country: Sweating in the heat at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Freezing in the snow at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
But the most memorable Veterans Day was in 2016. Not because it was spent in some far-off corner of the world, but because I was serving for the first time as my authentic self. The US military had successfully integrated transgender soldiers into its ranks. I could look forward to the rest of my career with the knowledge that I would only be discriminated against based solely on my performance
As my brigade marched in the local parade I was without fear or anxiety for the first time in many years.
Every November 11 that I have been privileged enough to wake up and put on the uniform has been an honor, and it is on those days that the sound of the bugle at reveille and the raising of the flag seems more ephemeral, a moment that I must somehow capture before the last of my days in service are behind me and I see the flag only as a civilian.
In June 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that transgender service members could serve openly in the armed forces. He determined that trans service members are “… talented and trained Americans who are serving their country with honor and distinction. We can’t allow barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications to prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission.” With those words, I could serve my country authentically.
For over a year after open service, being transgender had nothing to do with my career. I took command of a company. I worked with my first sergeant to develop training plans and led unit runs. I trained my soldiers and they helped develop me as a leader with opportunities and challenges. My company was successful at every assigned mission. As I reflected with pride on the accomplishments of those I served alongside, I was more certain than ever that military service was one of the best choices I had ever made. Being the “transgender soldier” was behind me as I looked to the future.
This summer an announcement by President Donald Trump changed everything. I awoke to the sounds of a phone inundated with texts and alerts, all informing me that the commander in chief had signed a directive that banned transgender military recruits and ordered the discharge of 15,000 service members, myself included, for being transgender, depending on Secretary of Defense James Mattis for recommendations on how to best implement the policy by next March.
I have served for 13 years and deployed to every combat zone of my generation. In 2009, I was the Noncommissioned Officer of the Year, and in 2013 I was the Military Intelligence Career Course Distinguished Honor Graduate. An artillery major wrote on an evaluation that I was the best intelligence officer he had worked with in 20 years, and an infantry colonel rated me as No. 1 of 11 intelligence officers in a combat brigade. I am counted among the ranks of those who, in the words of Carter, can best accomplish the mission. Regardless of my training, qualifications or dedication, I may be discharged.
The recent injunction by a federal judge blocking enforcement of key provisions of the ban is a step in the right direction, but it is far from a decisive victory. The uncertainty still looms in the future and overshadows the cautious optimism generated by the courts.
Aside from my own career, I worry how this will impact the service that I love. If transgender people can be told they are no longer welcome, nothing stops the reversal of other policies: Gays and lesbians, blacks, women — all groups that at one time could not join the military — are now at risk. Will the defense of our nation be secure when one or all of these groups are barred from the armed forces? How do service members continue to trust their leadership? In 2016, Carter said we will no longer discharge transgender soldiers. If, in 2018, the Department of Defense begins to discharge the thousands who have come out as transgender, how can anyone ever again trust the military to hold true to its word?
I do not know what Veterans Day will look like for me in 2018. I do not know if I will still be wearing this uniform or serving our great nation, regardless of my qualification. What I do know is that this Veterans Day I am proud of my service. I have done everything my country has ever asked of me and more, and I am not done yet. This Veterans Day, I stand ready to continue.