I served 34 years in the Army. I’m trans­gen­der. Trump is wrong.

Re­tired Col. Sheri Swokowski says she wishes she could have come out dur­ing her ser­vice

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @ss­woko Sheri Swokowski is a re­tired Army colonel who served as the hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor for the Wis­con­sin Na­tional Guard and the Rocky Moun­tain re­gion of the U.S. For­est Ser­vice.

Pres­i­dent Trump says al­low­ing trans­gen­der peo­ple to serve in the mil­i­tary would bring “dis­rup­tion” that could stand in the way of the “de­ci­sive and over­whelm­ing vic­tory” our armed forces must strive for. Ap­par­ently, he doesn’t think trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans are ca­pa­ble or wor­thy of de­fend­ing our na­tion. But he’s wrong. Thou­sands of pa­tri­otic trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans al­ready put their lives on the line ev­ery day to keep our coun­try free. We’ve been do­ing that since the 1700s. I know: I was one of them. From the time I was 5 years old grow­ing up in Man­i­towoc, Wis., I knew I was trans­gen­der. I just didn’t know what it was called. I al­ways thought I should be wearing my younger sis­ter’s clothes, and some­times, when I was home alone, I did. When I grad­u­ated from high school, I joined the Wis­con­sin Army Na­tional Guard and my lo­cal sher­iff ’s de­part­ment as a re­serve deputy. I hoped be­ing part of those male-dom­i­nated in­sti­tu­tions might help me deal with the cer­tainty I had that I was a woman, not a man. It didn’t, but I had no bet­ter ideas: I didn’t think any­one else out there had any idea what I was go­ing through. It wasn’t un­til I was 25 and read about Renée Richards, a pro­fes­sional ten­nis player who had to sue the U.S. Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion to be al­lowed to play as a woman, that I re­al­ized I wasn’t alone.

In the Army, I worked hard to sup­press my au­then­tic self. I knew that be­ing trans­gen­der would dis­qual­ify me from the job I loved — and it was a job I did well. I served in the Army in­fantry for 34 years and 10 months. As a cap­tain, I com­manded a light in­fantry unit of 100 per­son­nel and de­ployed twice. Even­tu­ally, I was pro­moted to colonel. I re­tired as di­rec­tor of man­power and per­son­nel for the Wis­con­sin Army and Air Na­tional Guard.

All along, I kept my se­cret. Some­times, very in­fre­quently, I would find a few hours, or a few days, when I could be my au­then­tic self: I’d wear women’s clothes, be­hind the safety of a locked front door. But then I’d purge every­thing, de­stroy­ing all the ev­i­dence of my real iden­tity as the guilt set in, be­cause I knew I wasn’t ex­hibit­ing the be­hav­ior ex­pected of a man.

I re­tired in 2004 but still felt a need to serve my coun­try. I be­came a lead in­struc­tor at the Army’s Force Man­age­ment School at Fort Belvoir in Vir­ginia. While I was there, I de­cided to tran­si­tion from male to fe­male. It was time to live up to my own ex­pec­ta­tions, rather than the ex­pec­ta­tions of oth­ers. I took six weeks off work, and when I came back, my boss told me that the school didn’t need me any­more and that he had al­ready hired my re­place­ment. For a ca­reer Army in­fantry colonel, be­ing told I was no longer needed with­out any real ex­pla­na­tion was a slap in the face. I was up­set, but I had no re­course — it would be years be­fore Pres­i­dent Barack Obama signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der pro­tect­ing fed­eral work­ers from dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of gen­der iden­tity or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

I loved my coun­try, though, and I knew I could still help keep it safe and strong. In 2008, I took a new job at the Pen­tagon, work­ing in the Army’s head­quar­ters as a civil­ian an­a­lyst. Peo­ple think of the Pen­tagon as a con­ser­va­tive in­sti­tu­tion, but my ex­pe­ri­ence there was noth­ing but pos­i­tive. I was known for the skills I brought to my work, for the anal­y­sis I did and for the rec­om­men­da­tions I made — not for my gen­der iden­tity. No one ever men­tioned or ques­tioned who I might have been in a dif­fer­ent life.

Now that Trump has de­cided to over­turn Obama’s or­der to al­low trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans to serve openly, I can’t imag­ine what my fel­low trans ser­vice mem­bers are feel­ing. I know that trans­gen­der peo­ple are go­ing to get up to­mor­row, put their uni­forms on and de­fend their coun­try — just like they do ev­ery day — but I also know that they’re go­ing to be doubt­ing that the com­man­der in chief is re­ally look­ing out for their best in­ter­ests. When trans ser­vice mem­bers can serve openly and re­ceive nec­es­sary med­i­cal treat­ment, they can fo­cus en­tirely on their jobs. As a re­sult, their in­di­vid­ual readi­ness in­creases, as does that of their units. When you live in­au­then­ti­cally, hid­ing your iden­tity from your col­leagues, your friends, your fam­ily, it brings in­evitable dis­trac­tions. I’m proud of my ser­vice, and I would never have made the rank of colonel in an ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive mil­i­tary hi­er­ar­chy if I weren’t an ex­cel­lent leader. But I still some­times won­der how much bet­ter an of­fi­cer I could have been if I had been able to tran­si­tion and serve au­then­ti­cally dur­ing my time in the Army.

Peo­ple are afraid of what they don’t know or what they don’t un­der­stand. It’s much more dif­fi­cult to hate and dis­crim­i­nate against some­one when you know their story. Maybe the pres­i­dent will lis­ten to some of the sto­ries of the brave men and women, like me, who serve our coun­try proudly. In the mil­i­tary, the most im­por­tant thing is to get the job done. Get­ting the job done is based on a per­son’s char­ac­ter and abil­ity. An in­di­vid­ual’s gen­der iden­tity has no in­flu­ence on those things. It’s a shame Trump doesn’t re­al­ize that.

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