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For transgender personnel in military, honesty can end careers

First Published      Last Updated Apr 26 2014 07:11 pm
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"My Afghanistan leadership was like, 'I have no idea who you are talking about,' " Wilson said. "We don't have a female with that last name. I think you have the wrong shop."

After Wilson came clean, commanders in Afghanistan decided to send him home. Within six hours, he was packed and loaded onto a plane. As the sun rose that morning, his prevailing concern was who would fill his slot inside the ramshackle intelligence fusion cell.

"My main concern was not: I could potentially be losing my career, but what about the guys on the ground," he said, noting that there was no one else on base trained to do the job.

On the flight home, he was surrounded by war-weary troops elated about the thought of seeing loved ones back home and indulging in the comforts of life in America. Wilson wanted nothing more than to go back to war.

"I didn't get to say goodbye to anyone," he said. "I have no idea what they told people."

When he arrived in Hawaii a few days later, his commanders promoted him. Weeks later, he received a commendation letter from Vice Admiral Jan Tighe, who oversaw his unit. Superiors were respectful and at times seemed apologetic, said Wilson, who recalls a sergeant major telling him: "You know, we are overreacting because we have no idea what to do with you."

After weeks of deliberations, a military lawyer gave Wilson a choice: "You can transition, or you can serve," the sailor said he was told.

That wasn't a choice to Wilson, who soon signed his honorable discharge papers and left Hawaii.

A Navy spokesman said that officials in Wilson's command did not wish to be interviewed about the sailor's ordeal. "Petty Officer Wilson served honorably," Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello said in an email.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, said the Defense Department does not know how many service members have been discharged for being transgender. She said the Pentagon has no plan to change its medical qualification standards based on the changes to the psychiatric association's entry on gender disorder, but she noted that medical policies are being constantly reviewed.

"In doing these reviews, the department considers that service members must serve in austere environments, many of which make necessary and ongoing treatments related to sex reassignment and many other conditions untenable," she said in an emailed statement.

Since he was discharged a month ago, Wilson has been sleeping on an air mattress on the floor of a friend's apartment in Manhattan. Having kept his security clearance, he could easily return to the same line of work for an intelligence agency or even the Pentagon, as a civilian. But he yearns to wear the uniform again.

"The military gave me the backbone to transition, to be who I am, because they look so fondly on honor and courage and all those things you have to have to be fully authentic," he said. "I don't think I would have gotten to where I am today without that."

bc-military-transgender (TPN)