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Reflections on Being an Honoree During the Women Veterans Day Ceremony

Updated: Jul 3

A Pin that has the army seal and a banner that reads Veteran

When Stacie Blake, CEO of YWCA Lancaster, reached out about nominating me to be honored during the Women Veterans Day Ceremony presented by the Governor's Advisory Commission on Women and the PA Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I was honored to be considered. On the other, as a transgender woman, I am always mindful about when, why and how I show up in women's spaces.

Women's spaces, organizations, and awards are important and necessary. They provide a safe and supportive environment for women to gather, share experiences, and celebrate achievements. As a transwoman, I am deeply aware of the challenges women face in having their voices heard and contributions recognized. I would never want my inclusion in a women's space to diminish the other women present or damage the hard-won community and reputations they have built.

Stacie and I had a thoughtful discussion about whether nominating me for this particular honor was reasonable and acceptable. I wanted to ensure that my presence as a transwoman who served while presenting as male would not be seen as detracting from the intent of the event. Stacie felt confident in proceeding with the nomination and firmly believed that if the selection committee felt my presence was acceptable, they would select me.  

My Military Service

I served as a Legal Specialist (71D) in the Army between 1993-1997, entering as a Private and being honorably discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as a Specialist just a few short months short of my first reenlistment date. During my time in service, I was stationed at Fort Eustis, Fort Story, and Camp Stanley in Korea.

Considering how my military service began, I'm surprised that I even made it to my first command. During basic training, I received two Article 15s - one for talking during formation to help squad members for whom English was a second language understand barely discernible orders barked by drill sergeants, and another for calling out a drill sergeant who had given up on our platoon.

In the latter incident, I confronted the drill sergeant, following him to his office to tell him that if he was going to give up on us just because things were tough and not going his way, he had no business serving, let alone being responsible for training the next generation of soldiers. I pointed out his hypocrisy in telling us that quitting was never an option and we had to rise to the situation, only to then publicly announce that we had failed to meet his standards, and he was washing his hands of us.

I understand that it was a tactic, part of a strategy to get us to step up or drop out, but I firmly believed that no one gets to give up like that, especially not someone in a leadership position. Ultimately, my willingness to stand up for my squad and protect my platoon was seen as evidence of my potential for leadership. As part of my punishment, I was tasked with typing up my own Article 15 under the supervision of a Legal Specialist, turning the experience into a learning opportunity that would foreshadow my future role.

As a Legal Specialist, I prepared Article 15s and discharge paperwork. I noticed many counseling statements focused on failures rather than paths for improvement. I began discussing this with the Company Commanders and First Sergeants who would bring actions to my office for processing. This led to me, as an 18-year-old E2, being tasked with training NCOs on effectively using counseling to support growth and retention.

I also handled Don't Ask, Don't Tell discharges. It was not uncommon for these chapter actions to be processed as a General or Other Than Honorable discharge. While I didn't realize how much of myself I was hiding when I first joined, I felt that it was unjust to give someone a General or Other Than Honorable Discharge because they were outed. So, I worked to ensure they these service members received an honorable discharge whenever misconduct was not a factor. Little did I know that I would later be discharged under the same policy.

In my role, I was also working hard to bring the legal office I was assigned to into compliance with regulations and automate discharge paperwork processes. My success in this effort resulted in a promotion to E-4 and being tasked with setting up a battalion-level legal office from scratch.

While my service taught me a great deal about my capabilities and resilience, it was also a time of personal struggle as I grappled with my identity in an environment that did not allow me to fully be myself.

Discharge Under Don't Ask, Don't Tell

My service in the Army, while filled with challenges and triumphs, came to a painful end when I was discharged under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. At the time, I was grappling with my own sexuality and gender identity, but I had not yet come to terms with my identity. I knew I was different, but I lacked the language and the self-awareness to fully understand or articulate who I was.

Despite my best efforts to conceal this part of myself, I found myself under investigation. The process was humiliating and dehumanizing. My privacy was invaded, my integrity questioned, and my dedication to service disregarded. The very institution I had sworn to serve and protect was now turning its back on me.

The irony of the situation was not lost on me. As a Legal Specialist, I had been tasked with processing Don't Ask, Don't Tell discharges for others. I just never imagined that I would find myself on the receiving end of the very paperwork I had been shuffling.

Being discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a devastating blow. It felt like a betrayal, a negation of all I had given to the Army. I had served with honor, upheld the values of the military, and worked tirelessly to make a difference. Yet, because of who I was, because of my identity, I was deemed unfit to serve. The experience left deep scars, both emotionally and professionally. It shattered my sense of belonging, my belief in the fairness of the system I had sworn to uphold.

For years, I carried the shame and the trauma of that experience. I struggled to reconcile my pride in my service with the pain of how it ended. I grappled with anger, with a sense of injustice, and with the knowledge that countless others had suffered the same fate. Initially, it drove me so far into the closet that I passed beyond the borders of Narnia. Even after I came out of the closet, I've continued to hold my military service at arm's length.

Complicated Feelings

I have always struggled with imposter syndrome. Part of it stems from living the first few decades of my life presenting as a gender that did not align with who I was, and now living authentically but knowing that being trans will always impact how others perceive me. Another part comes from my school years, where I was repeatedly told that I would never amount to anything because of my academic struggles. And yet another part comes from having only a high school education and consistently working alongside people with more experience and degrees.

When I read through the bios of the other honorees, these feelings of inadequacy came rushing back. Their military accomplishments and service were front and center, while mine felt like a footnote in comparison. As a transwoman who served while presenting as male, I can’t help but worry that I am going to stand out as an imposter among these remarkable women who had served as their true selves and faced the inherent challenges that come with being a woman in the military.

My complicated relationship with my service only amplified these feelings. I am proud of what I achieved during my time in the Army, but the painful way it ended under Don't Ask, Don't Tell has left lasting scars. I find myself questioning whether I deserve to be honored alongside these women, whether my service and experiences are enough to merit being included among their ranks.

This nomination has forced me to confront these deeply rooted insecurities and to reexamine the value and impact of my military service. Through the process, I'm beginning to make peace with the idea that I can be both proud of my service and hurt by the way it ended. I can celebrate the positive change I effected while also acknowledging the personal toll it took. I can stand among other women veterans knowing that our paths were different but our commitment to service and to making a difference is the same. I just worry about how welcome my presence will be.

Continuing the Oath

When I enlisted in the Army, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I swore to bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and to obey the orders of the President and the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Though I am not a Christian and am no longer in active service, that oath continues to guide my life and work. The wording may have been rooted in a Christian tradition, with the phrase "So help me God," but I took the oath seriously, and I still do. My commitment to those principles did not end when my service did.

Now, as a civilian, I may not face "enemies" in the traditional sense, but I do confront threats to the values and ideals enshrined in our Constitution. Discrimination, prejudice, and systemic barriers to equity and inclusion are all threats to the promise of equal rights and justice for all. They undermine the very fabric of our democracy.

The work I do today – promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and accessibility – is a direct continuation of that oath. By advocating for marginalized communities, pushing for policies that level the playing field, and educating others about bias and oppression, I am defending the Constitution and the principles it represents.

This perspective on my work as an extension of my military oath has been greatly influenced by two of my mentors, Laurie Battaglia and Christine Courtney. In our conversations, they have consistently drawn connections between the work I do today and the ways in which I engaged in that same work all those years ago. They have helped me understand that when I train organizations on creating inclusive cultures; when I advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and transgender visibility I am living values and continuing the work I began during my service.

Their insights have been front and center as I reevaluate my military service in light of this nomination.  They were the first to challenge me to see the continuity between my military service and my current path. They have shown me how the skills and values I developed in the Army – leadership, integrity, a commitment to justice – are the same ones I draw upon in my diversity, equity, and inclusion work. After decades of holding my military service at arm’s length, I am finally beginning to reframe my relationship with it.

I can’t deny that military service instilled in me a deep sense of duty, honor, and commitment to something greater than myself. Those values continue to drive me, even if the battlefield looks different. I may not wear the uniform anymore, but I still serve – I serve my community, I serve the cause of justice, and I serve the ideal of an America where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

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