While deployed to Kuwait, First Lieutenant Andrew Woz committed himself to a career of service. He was three days away from flying home and decided to put his civilian life in the past by moving from the Army Reserve to Active Duty. Lt Woz loved the Army and though he had been terrified of the potential consequences, he came out to the Army as transgender a month earlier. At the time there were no issues, he was just another soldier doing his job and doing it well.
The following morning, Woz finished a grueling 12 hour overnight shift as the Officer in Charge for the Movement Control Battalion. When he got to the barracks he checked his personal phone and found it to be overloaded with worried text messages. While he was working, the President of the United States tweeted that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” Lieutenant Woz and thousands of other transgender service members, serving honorably and openly, had just been told that they were the problem. That was one year ago, today.
The Immediate Aftermath
Specialist ‘R’, An Army Blackhawk Mechanic who had just discovered his wife was pregnant, felt crushed. He worried how the perfect life they had built could easily fall apart with this news, but his fellow soldiers reached out immediately and his commander pulled him aside to ensure he was OK.
Search parties were sent to locate Hospital Corpsman First Class Robyn Eastwood who was on leave at the nearby beach enjoying a day in the sun. Their mission? Find her and ensure she was OK.
Similar stories played out across the globe. Commanders and fellow service members were taking care of their own for a simple reason: they were all valuable members of the team.
Transgender Military Community Response
Directing much of the immediate response fell to Lieutenant Commander Blake Dremann, the President of SPARTA, an advocacy organization representing transgender service members, but first he had to collect himself. “As much as it was a bit of a shock, there’s a job to be done, and that’s what I’m here to do” he reflected in a later interview. His calm projection reassured his membership that nothing would happen immediately because a tweet is not policy.
At the same time transgender service members across the country hardened their resolve and vowed to be more visible than ever.
In Colorado, Staff Sergeant Sabrina Bruce was heartbroken, but she reflected on her service and realized that the Air Force was her family. No matter what happened going forward joining the service was the single best decision she’d ever made.
In Texas, Sergeant Harriet Green of the National Guard reenlisted immediately because there was no way she’d leave the service she loved without a battle.
In Florida, Cryptologic Technician First Class Eve Savage-Wilson was one week from finishing an advanced signals analysis course where she was the class lead. Though seven months into her transition, her transgender status wasn’t public. Galvanized by the tweets she gathered the class and told them everything. A week later she graduated with honors and headed to a new ship as their senior cryptologic analyst.
In the Spotlight
As the media dove into the story, transgender service members found themselves the subject of intense public scrutiny. Americans learned what their commanders and peers already knew: transgender service members were not a burden; they met and exceed the standards set by the military.
Americans also saw people like Sergeant First Class Nick Wright in their daily lives. Nick, a National Guard recruiter in Ohio, could make the kind of personal connections that are so valuable in disproving negative sterortypes about transgender people. SFC Wright said that “People who have witnessed my transition first hand do not question my ability to be a trustworthy person to have around their children.”
Public opinion began to change quickly and dramatically. Around the time of the tweets, the voting public was almost evenly split on the topic of transgender service, but after a week of exposure to stories like that of Drill Sergeant Ken Ochoa and others appearing in People magazine, a Quinnipiac Poll found that the percentage of Americans supporting trans service had jumped to 68%.
Transgender Service Members Continue to Excel
In the year since the tweets, transgender service members have been promoted, deployed, and decorated while serving in joint and coalition positions while serving around the world.
- Captain Alivya Stehlik, a physical therapist currently deployed to Afghanistan, says “It’s still odd that some people think I’m part of the problem. My unit leadership has been thrilled with my willingness to come on this deployment and take care of our Soldiers.”
Staff Sergeant Mangruen, an Air Force Munitions Systems Specialist, deployed to an undisclosed location in SW Asia in October 2017, supported a Vice-Presidential visit, and was promoted while he was there. He says “A year later I’m continuing to do my job like everyone else as if the tweets never happened.”
Specialist ‘R’ fought through two waivers to deploy with his unit in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. He could have stayed home when his first attempt failed, but he and his leadership pushed hard on his behalf ato get him cleared. Though he would miss seeing his 5-month-old daughter develop, his commitment to his unit and his country took precedence.
Transgender service members have been appointed to command positions, are training their team members to meet current threats, and are safeguarding lives right here at home.
Lieutenant Kris Moore was rated the top division officer on his ship and was selected for graduate school en route to his new assignment as Company Officer and Instructor at the United States Naval Academy.
Sergeant Green mobilized to support Hurricane Harvey relief and personally distributed thousands of meals and other assistance packages. She said “We all slept in the same cots in the same expo center with no running water, we all drove and maintained the same vehicles, and we all cared the same about helping people in need. Not once was I a burden.”
Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Kiera Walker keeps a watchful eye on Lake Superior while in charge of the Rescue and Survival program.
Technical Sergeant Katherine Caldwell, who analyzes and develops requirements for secure satellite communications, says she’s “Doing more to support national security now than at any other point in my career.” Her efforts were recognized as she was recently named the Non-Commissioned Officer of the Quarter for her unit.
A Privilege To Serve
Many transgender service members believe that it’s not their right to serve, but it’s a privilege to do so. Master Chief Petty Officer Taryn Wilson, with 23 years of service, says that transgender people join and stay in the service for the same reasons as everyone else. Noting that trans people didn’t just appear in the service after the ban was lifted, she said “We are here to create opportunity for ourselves and our family and above all we are here to serve our nation!”
Sergeant First Class Wright couldn’t agree more stating that “Transgender individuals are just like any other service member. We serve because we are called to do it, because we love our country and the beliefs it was built upon. We want to ensure that the freedoms we have been afforded will be offered to generations after us. It was not our gender identity that defined our decision to serve, but our love for the country that allows us to live and serve as our authentic selves.”
History Repeats Itself
Transgender troops face the same arguments that have been used against other minority groups that have wanted to serve openly and equally. History shows that claims about African Americans, Women, and LGB people’s physical, mental and moral inability to contribute to force-readiness were utterly baseless.
This type of backward thinking has not deterred most trans service member’s optimism or commitment. As Staff Sargent Bruce said, “Every day I go to work with a smile on my face because I know this is where I was meant to be and I’m thankful for the privilege to be a part of this team.”
Lieutenant Commander Dremann of SPARTA is certain that ultimately transgender service members will continue to “prove detractors wrong, serve with honor, and help the mission succeed.” “I am privileged to serve alongside them. The country should be proud of such dedication during an era where so few choose this life. They are here to stay, stronger than ever,” he concludes.
Through the turbulence, transgender service members have put on their uniforms, laced up their boots, and unleashed their most powerful weapon: commitment to their oath of service.
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Story by Lt Col Bryan Bree Fram, the views expressed are those of Lt Col Fram and SPARTA and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense