He only wants to serve: Transgender and ready to enlist in the military

ROTC alum Chad has wanted to join the Army since we were kids. Even after Trump's ban, he isn't giving up

Published July 27, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

Chad, a proud ROTC graduate   (Courtesy of Chad)
Chad, a proud ROTC graduate (Courtesy of Chad)

When Chad came back to his grandparents’ house for Christmas in 2010, he found Iowa unbearably cold. He had spent the last few years living in a desert climate as a university student in Nevada. Being back in Iowa, Chad was inundated with childhood memories: playing GI Joes in the living room and sledding down the hill in the backyard with his sister and me, their cousin.

“Hey, grandpa,” said Chad with excitement. His grandfather, sitting in his worn-down recliner, looked up from whatever was catching his eye on TV, most likely CNN or an old Western. “Could I show you my ROTC uniform?” Al nodded, and Chad raced off down the hallway.

Chad adored his grandfather’s sense of humor and respected his drive. He had come from a poor background and had worked incredibly hard to provide for his family. If he was going to do something, he would do it. He never gave up. Al had served in World War II, although he rarely talked about it.

Chad slipped into his combat uniform and went back out to show his grandfather, who recognized the rank symbol on Chad’s hat.

“I was a corporal, too,” said Al.

Al talked briefly about his time as a combat medic at the 91st General Hospital and how he had been stationed in Belgium and England during the war. Chad felt a huge sense of pride to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.

He got out his camera, took off his hat and placed it on Al’s head. Al smiled with a wide grin and gleaming eyes.

Chad didn’t want to be in the photograph himself. He had been self-conscious about how he looked for as long as he could remember. Chad was dealing with an identity crisis, but at this point, he couldn’t quite understand it. He had been named Brittany at birth, the name his family still called him at that point. He knew that he hated his name, hated how he looked and knew that the pronoun “she” was not right. These were concerns that he brought up often with his girlfriend, Ana, who his grandfather and grandmother knew nothing about at this point. They didn’t even know that Chad was attracted to women — and that was not a topic he felt ready to broach during Christmastime.

That holiday in 2010 was the only time Chad was able to show his grandfather his uniform. For as long as Chad could remember, he had wanted to be in the military. In 2010, Chad didn’t even know what the word transgender meant — he didn’t know he could be anything but “Brittany.” Al passed away in 2013, a short while after Chad started to understand himself as transgender.

Chad wishes that his grandfather could have lived long enough to know him as his authentic self; to see the day when he would be able to enlist as a real soldier, whenever that day may come.

* * *

Chad was the kind of kid who would watch “Band of Brothers” or war documentaries for fun. He had always wanted to learn more about the military. Over time, his curiosity grew into a patriotism that would become part of his identity. He felt a call to serve his country in any way he could.

When he was younger, his parents were supportive of his desire to shop in the boys’ department for clothes. He was home-schooled most of his life and does not have fond memories of the bullies in his few years of public school.

When Chad began puberty, he started to think there was something wrong. His body went through changes that he wanted to stop. Still, he didn’t know there was a name for what he was experiencing.

For his sixteenth birthday, his parents gave him an engraved dog tag. One side of the tag said “Love, Mom and Dad.” Chad, unsure what to do with the gift at the time, hung it on his car's rearview mirror.

At 17, he went away to college. A passion to fight for his country and his love for his grandfather inspired him to enlist in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

He wanted to enter active duty eventually and saw ROTC as the easiest route to do that while still obtaining a college degree. But many positions he was interested in were not open at that time to soldiers who were perceived to be women, like field artillery officer, a combat position that works with fire support systems. With ROTC, he found a passion and a home — the cadets became a tight-knit group, a brotherhood.

That same year, Chad started dating Ana, a development his closest friends and immediate family accepted. But being in what would be perceived as a same-sex relationship while being in ROTC was far from easy in early 2011, because "don’t ask, don’t tell," the military policy which stated that openly gay, bisexual and lesbian officers could be released from service, was still in place. At first, Chad tried to keep his personal life separate from his ROTC life, but eventually he became annoyed by the rigidity of the rules. After he posted several images of the two of them on Facebook, a friend from ROTC approached Chad and warned him to be more careful.

In September of 2011, "don’t ask, don’t tell" was repealed. Chad and Ana were free to make their relationship public without potential repercussions. On a family Christmas vacation in Florida at the end of 2011, Chad got down on one knee on the beach and asked Ana to marry him.

* * *

One day during the following semester, Ana, with an engagement ring on her left hand, went to her Human Sexuality class, excited to start the day. This was by far her favorite class she had taken at college so far. The professor had inspired Ana to continue her work after graduation with LGBTQ groups.

Chad would accompany Ana sometimes to these classes and knew her professor as well, and the two of them would often discuss ideas about sexuality from the class over lunches or dinners. The class had brought them closer together and helped them understand their own identities.

This particular day’s lecture was about transgender individuals. Her professor dispelled the myths and stereotypes that the term “transgender” could bring to mind — outdated terms such as cross-dressing or transsexual — and discussed with the class how a transgender person might feel: being in the wrong skin, feeling like certain parts of their body or genitalia were wrong, feeling that their brain was a different gender than what their body indicated.

Ana leaned forward in her seat and starting asking follow-up questions to almost every sentence her professor uttered. Ana had never learned about what being transgender truly meant, and yet this subject matter felt so familiar to her. It made her think of her partner.

* * *

Ana met up with Chad for lunch later that day. As Ana started to describe what being transgender meant, something in Chad’s mind clicked. These things that he had been feeling since puberty, maybe even longer, were valid and real. After further research, he concluded he was in the wrong body, and became determined to start identifying as male.

Chad took his mom out to lunch at Great Harvest Bread Company and told her that he was transgender and wanted to transition. His mother told his father later that week, and Chad was overwhelmed by the amount of support that he received from his family. Once they understood what being transgender meant, they found that this idea made sense with who their child had always been.

He asked his parents what they would have named him if he had been designated male at birth. “Chad,” is what they told him, and so that became his name.

Chad’s decision affected his life plan. The repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" had not changed the military’s strict ban on transgender enlistment. If Chad did enlist in the military, he could not go forward with testosterone hormonal therapy and would have to pretend that he was and felt female, even though now he knew he was a man. The way Chad saw it, transitioning into the gender he was, was the only option. If he wasn’t true to himself, how would he be able to lead troops or give command?

Chad told his ROTC supervisor that he would be dropping out of the program. His supervisor was understanding, as were Chad's ROTC friends. They only seemed to want everyone to do a good job — it didn’t matter to them what gender Chad was. He realized that military policy that was the problem, not the people.

When Chad started to transition with hormonal injections, he began to worry about everyday things like locker rooms and restrooms. He used the women’s room for the first year, but sometimes women would report that a man was in there. But using the men’s room felt unsafe to him.

Chad wanted to tell his grandfather about being transgender, but he never found the right time. His grandfather became ill in 2012 with kidney failure and an infection. Chad traveled back to Iowa with Ana, his sister and his parents. His grandmother knew that Ana was Chad’s girlfriend, but Chad couldn’t bring himself to tell his grandmother or his grandfather about being transgender then.

For the first time since Chad had started hormone therapy, his family used she/her pronouns and called him Brittany. It bothered him, but he also knew this was not the time to tell his grandparents; he would wait until his grandfather got better. But in March 2013, Al passed away.

Chad ultimately decided not to go to the funeral, knowing that his grandmother was grieving and that showing up as Chad could be jarring to her during this time. Chad had started to see his body look like how he always wanted — his voice had deepened, and he was able to grow facial hair.

It was months after Al’s funeral when Chad’s father told his grandmother. His grandmother’s response was, “Okay. And?”

Chad felt relief at his grandmother’s acceptance of him, but he also wished that his grandfather could have been around to know him for who he truly was. At Chad and Ana’s wedding, Chad took his grandmother by the arm and showed her a specific table by the reception area. There was a photograph of Chad’s grandfather in his military uniform set up that his grandmother had given him when he was a child. Al was with Chad still, watching over his grandson.

Later in 2013, Chad and Ana moved to another state for him to pursue his master’s degree in educational leadership and her a PhD in couples and family counseling. Chad was still thinking about the military, perhaps more than ever now that his grandfather had passed. He set up Google alerts so he would know right away any new information regarding the transgender ban in the military. He obtained a job at the university in its diversity and equity office, and his life went on. And he waited.

* * *

Chad’s research into military policy on transgender enlistment made him anxious for change. Prior to 2016, under military medical law, being transgender was considered a “psychosexual disorder.” In 2014, the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated that 15,000 transgender individuals were in active service in the military, but there are no actual statistics because transgender individuals could be discharged for revealing their true gender identity. In 2015, the military started to consider revoking the ban on transgender individuals.

Chad received a Google alert on June 30, 2016, which said that the ban on transgender enlistment had been lifted. After that work that day, Chad parked his Jeep outside of the U.S. Army Recruiting Station and gathered his confidence.

Inside, he met with a recruiter, and Chad told him that he was transgender and wanted to enlist. The recruiter said he would have to do some more digging into policy to see what they could do.

Chad went home and told Ana. Behind Chad’s enthusiasm was apprehension; the opportunity to enlist without any complications sounded too good to be true. Two days passed, and then Chad got a phone call from the recruiter during dinner at their house. The new policy, at this time, on open transgender enlistment would not take effect until July 1, 2017, because the military was working first with current service members. The recruiter told Chad that he would have to wait until then to enlist. Chad hung up and stood there in silence until Ana got up from the table and gave him a hug.

July 1, 2017, had been marked on Chad and Ana’s calendars. Ana and Chad knew what that day was supposed to mean for both of them: open enlistment and time apart, while Ana finished her PhD and Chad went off to basic training.

And then the date changed. A request for delay on revoking the ban was sent by military chiefs in late June. On June 30, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis officially approved a six-month delay, which meant the policy wouldn’t be re-evaluated until December 2017.

On July 26, President Donald Trump wrote a series of tweets officially stating that he would ban all transgender service members from the U.S. Army. Chad’s faith was tested again as he felt a wave of hurt, anger and sadness sweep over him.

For Chad, the opportunity to openly enlist, whenever that may be, would be his chance to be a military man, like his grandfather. With his gleaming eyes, square jaw, and round nose, those who knew Al can see that Chad even looks just like him.

Chad doesn’t necessarily agree with every U.S. policy, but his patriotism for his country has never wavered. He wants to acknowledge the struggles the nation faces and become a part of the solution by dedicating the rest of his life to serving his country.

The dog tag that his parents gave him for his 16th birthday still dangles from the rearview mirror of his Jeep. It's hung in every car he's owned, and it's been there through his entire journey. The light from each sunset reflects off of the tag, illuminating the words engraved on the other side: “Never Give Up.”

By Laura Schmidt

Laura Schmidt is a freelance journalist and writer based in Minneapolis.

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