Transitioning to being a woman while serving in Afghanistan was like 'puberty in a combat zone'

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Marco Werman: Here’s a figure that might surprise you, according to a survey done earlier this year: about a third of all transgender women in the US, those who transition from male to female, either serve or have served in the military. Yet, the US military does not allow transgender people to serve openly. Sarah Gonzalez of WNYC brings us a story now of one transgender vet in New Jersey who made her transition on the job during her deployment to Afghanistan.


Sarah Gonzalez: This is the sound of a decorated 30-year combat veteran walking into a room in 5-inch high black patent leather heels.


Jennifer: My primary job in the military -- I was in the infantry.


Gonzalez: That’s Jennifer. She was born Edward, joined the army right out of high school and went into combat arms.


Jennifer: That’s the guys that kick in doors, those are the guys that fight on the line, those are the guys that get to face-to-face combat.


Gonzalez: As Edward, Jennifer used to jump out of helicopters and parachute into enemy-controlled areas on intelligence-gathering missions.


Jennifer: Yeah, I did that. All the big tough jobs I could take on, and it was all to try to make things go away, make things right.


Gonzalez: She says it was an attempt to suppress who she really was inside.


Jennifer: It was painful; a lot of tears over the whole thing. A lot of tears. It’s a lot of anguish.


Gonzalez: She started taking hormones to transition to a woman while she was deployed to Afghanistan. It was towards the end of her military career. She says it was like going through puberty in a combat zone.


Jennifer: Emotionally, I was a very different person than I had been before and I realized that I wasn’t so much the tough infantry sergeant anymore. It was different. And I had to go off and go do that job, and it was the most dynamic job I had to do yet in my career.


Gonzalez: She was 215 pounds, solid, biggest guy on her team. But the hormones were making her skin softer, her voice higher. Jennifer says she told some of the women in her platoon, and two men, what was going on. She hid it from everyone else.


Jennifer: I had to. The military is not set up to understand that. If at any point that the military realized I was transitioning, they would have ended my military career on the spot.


Gonzalez: Even though she got her hormones from an army doctor, the US military still bans transgender people from serving openly on mental health and medical grounds. But Jennifer says she’s proof that transgender people can do the job and serve honorably.


Jennifer: Think about it -- I was already in the middle of my transition when I went, so yeah, I did. I could do the job, but they wouldn’t let me.


Gonzalez: Another thing they won’t let her do is change her name on her military discharge papers, even though she has been able to do that on every other federal form. A spokesperson for the Department of Defense says the DOD doesn’t change names on military forms in order to maintain “the accuracy of its historical records.” So, when transgender veterans try to access their benefits, their new names don’t match their military records. They have to disclose that they used to be the other gender. Jennifer says it’s not exactly what you want to do when you’re trying to go back to school under the GI Bill, get a veteran’s home loan or go on a job interview. She’s asking the DOD to change its policy.


Jennifer: All I’m looking to do is amend the document so that I can move forward without any discrimination, without anybody knowing, to protect my own privacy at some point.


Gonzalez: Veterans who want to keep their transgender history private are forced to give up their military benefits, she says.


Jennifer: You face the enemies of the United States. What a shame that you have to hide that service because you’re afraid of somebody’s perception of you.


Gonzalez: She says negative perceptions about transgender people in the military were heightened when Bradley Manning publically disclosed that he wanted to be known as Chelsea Manning after being sentenced for leaking thousands of classified documents. Jennifer says having Chelsea Manning as the most public face of transgender people in the military was damaging. Still, she’s heartened by the fact that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said he’s open to reviewing the military ban on transgender personnel. If the policy did change, the US would join 18 other countries that currently allow transgender people to serve. For The World, I’m Sarah Gonzalez in Newark, New Jersey.


Werman: Stories like that barely scratch the surface of all that veterans face as they return from wars abroad. If you are a vet and want to help us with the coverage, please join our online community. Just text the word “Return” to 69866.