An American soldier, Specialist James A. Slape, age 23, was killed earlier this month in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Specialist Slape was on a mission on October 4 to recover an armored vehicle that had been damaged by a mine on a ridge near Camp Dwyer, an American outpost. Several soldiers were trapped inside the vehicle, unable to get out because the entire area was suspected of being booby-trapped by bombs. Specialist Slape, a bomb disposal technician from the 430th Ordnance Company, was part of a quick reaction force that was sent out to clear the area of mines and booby-trapped bombs so the soldiers could get out, and their damaged vehicle could be recovered.
According to the New York Times, Specialist Slape had just cleared the rear of the damaged vehicle, allowing the trapped soldiers inside to safely get out, and was clearing the front of the vehicle when he stepped on a buried explosive device and was killed.
Specialist Slape wasn’t a transgender soldier, but he might have been. There are transgender soldiers buried at Arlington Cemetery. There are gay and transgender soldiers buried at Normandy and Anzio. They died at Gettysburg and Guadalcanal and Khe Sanh and Tal Afar and Kandahar Province. They are serving all over the world right now in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard.
What makes someone want to risk his or her life as a bomb disposal technician? What made the soldiers trapped inside the vehicle that had hit the mine want to be there, driving around on some godforsaken hillside where several other patrols had already been attacked by Taliban fighters? All of them — Specialist Slape, the members of his quick reaction force, the soldiers on the original patrol in the vehicle that had hit the mine — all of them were risking their lives just being there. If Camp Dwyer was anything like the American bases I visited when I was in Afghanistan in 2004, it wasn’t much to look at. Probably a bunch of bunkers dug into a dusty, rocky, barren landscape, surrounded by sand-filled Hesco barriers topped by barbed wire, protected by machine gun emplacements and protected from attack by available artillery fire and air strikes.
Specialist Slape and the other soldiers at Camp Dwyer were probably eating B-rations, sealed trays of prepared food heated in boiling water, with hot meals prepared at a dining facility helicoptered in once or twice a week, if they were lucky. They were sleeping on cots in Army sleeping bags and were lucky to get a shower once a week, if that often.
They were dirty all the time. Taliban fighters were everywhere, shooting at them, firing mortars and RPGs, hiding improvised bombs on roads and trails trying to kill them, Afghan civilians watching them warily, reporting their movements to the Taliban.
Not much of a life, huh? People back in the States other than your family and friends don’t even know you’re there. Have you read anything about Camp Dwyer before this? Anything about the 430th Ordnance Company, a National Guard unit from Washington D.C.? Did you know that eight American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year?
You want a low-paid, thankless job where you get sent overseas to war zones, away from your family and friends, and you get the privilege of running the risk of being shot at and blown up, the United States Army has a slot for you.
But not if you’re a transgender American, not if the Trump administration gets its way. Trump’s foot soldiers of the right have been busy ever since he took office trying to make life miserable for transgender people. Last year, Trump tried to reverse the Obama administration’s policy allowing transgender troops to serve openly in the military, but the attempt was overturned by four separate federal courts, most recently in a decision by a judge in California.
Judge Jesus Bernal found that the administration’s arguments that transgender soldiers would damage “unit cohesion” and “military readiness” to be without merit. “In the history of military service in this country, ‘the loss of unit cohesion’ has been consistently weaponized against open service by a new minority group,” the judge wrote in his decision. “Yet, at every turn, this assertion has been overcome by the military’s steadfast ability to integrate these individuals into effective members of our armed forces. As with blacks, women, and gays, so now with transgender persons. The military has repeatedly proven its capacity to adapt and grow stronger specifically by the inclusion of these individuals.”
This week it became known that Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services is literally trying to erase transgender Americans from existence, at least in the case of federal civil rights laws under Title IX. “The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined ‘on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable,’” according to The New York Times. “The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.”
What the hell is going on here? Why are Trump and his minions so determined to do damage to the lives of transgender people in this country?
I spoke to Riley Dosh, a 2017 graduate of West Point who is transgender and was denied a commission as a Second Lieutenant because the Trump ban on transgender troops had not been overturned when she graduated last summer. Dosh had spent four years at West Point training to lead soldiers in combat. Dosh had the support of the Superintendent of West Point and the Brigade Surgeon, both of whom recommended she be commissioned. But the decision was taken from West Point and moved up to Pentagon level by the Trump administration, and her commission was denied.
Had she been commissioned in 2017, she would probably be in Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Syria, or at least awaiting deployment to one of those combat zones or one of the other military outposts we have all over the world. Some of her classmates are serving overseas right now, in conditions similar to those in Camp Dwyer, or worse.
I asked her why she had chosen to serve in the Army, and what she thought of Trump’s attempts to ban transgender soldiers like herself from serving. “I’m patriotic, just like the rest of my classmates at West Point. Gay people and transgender people sign up for the military for the same reasons everyone else does. They want to serve their country. So did I.”
I asked if Trump is just trolling for votes from his right-wing base with his transgender ban.
“It’s far more sinister than that,” she answered. “Their objective is a direct attack on transgender people, just because they are transgender. They want to make life harder for us.”
Why?, I asked. Is it just an ideological thing? “It’s fundamentally theological,” Dosh answered. “That’s why you see the fingerprints of Pence all over it. They have a fear of gay people and trans people built into their identity as Christians. And they see transgender people in terms of liberalism generally. They want to attack liberalism as a whole, and transgender people are just one group they single out as an example.”
Before they tried to ban transgender people from serving in the military, the United States had segregated the American military by race and gender. Women weren’t admitted to West Point until 1976. Gay people weren’t allowed to serve openly in the military until 2011. Transgender people weren’t allowed to serve openly until June of 2016, and are allowed today only because federal courts have overturned Trump’s executive order attempting to ban their service.
“It’s extremely important that we be allowed to serve in the military,” Dosh told me. “Because if you’re not allowed to serve your country, you’re not included with everyone else, you’re considered a burden on society, and we’re not a burden. All we want are the rights and obligations everyone else has. It’s part of what it means to be an American. They will not erase us.”
You can’t erase the graves of gay and transgender troops. You can’t erase their blood. You can’t erase their patriotism. They have gone to battlefields and given their lives for us.
You can’t erase them, because they are us. We owe them.