When I think about the proudest days of my life, one was the day I joined the U.S. Air Force. Another is the day I decided to publicly embrace my identity as a transgender man. And a third is the day the previous administration lifted the prohibition on transgender service members — finally allowing my two identities to co-exist. The day the ban was lifted in 2016, I remember crying with joy as I talked with my transgender colleagues. We could continue to wear the uniform of the U.S. military and do the work we loved without hiding, silence, anxiety or fear of losing our careers.
I wish I could say I’m still doing that work and wearing that uniform. But after 30 years of experience and dedication, I decided to retire in 2018. Not because I no longer felt up to the task, but because the current Commander in Chief reversed the earlier order and declared via tweet that transgender people were no longer welcome to serve their country — despite the testimony from former military service secretaries in support of open transgender service.
I am heartbroken for younger transgender people who won’t get the same opportunities, and for active transgender troops now facing an uncertain future in the military as the Trump administration implements the ban and litigation to overturn it continues in the courts.
I know from experience how a career in the military can change someone’s life and open so many doors. I joined the Air Force at age 24, following in my brother’s footsteps and knowing it would give me a sense of belonging, family and structure. After joining the Air Force Reserve in 1987, I initially served in Air-Evac, transporting patients injured in battle or in the course of other duties, a demanding job that required me to deploy every 60 days for medical evacuations in far-flung locations like Germany, Iceland, Portugal and Iraq. I later moved into Flight Medicine Operations, coordinating Air-Evac flights from an Air Command Center, and went on to serve in the Gulf and Bosnian wars. When I retired, having been promoted to the rank of Major, I did so knowing I was right about the military giving my life a sense of purpose.
My experience also refutes any concerns that transgender service members undercut unit cohesion or military readiness. In fact, when I started living openly as a man in 2014, my unit of macho pilots treated it as a non-event. As to readiness, after transitioning, I passed the annual physicals under the Air Force’s male standards with near-perfect scores. Being transgender had no impact on my ability to safely and efficiently transport injured service members to life-saving medical care. As most anyone who has served will tell you, it’s the ability to do the job that counts.
Military leaders and the majority of Americans — including a growing number of the president’s own party — recognize that discriminating against those who are ready and able to serve their country goes against our military values. I saw how exposure to different backgrounds and cultures made units stronger. And as a person of color, I also recognize the military’s history of propelling integration forward, for the better of the military and the country.
What’s more, the continuation of the ban will deprive the military of qualified Americans who want to serve and will continue to force out experienced service members due to fear and uncertainty about our futures. Those, like me, who saw opportunities and new experiences in this career are now banned from enlisting. And transgender service members who continue to serve do so knowing their Commander in Chief has deemed them unfit and is cruelly forcing them to deny their true selves. Removing transgender pilots, intelligence specialists, medical professionals and others with specialized skills, especially at a time when military recruitment is declining, will mean America losing its ability to have a top fighting machine.
There have always been and will always be transgender people serving in our military. But a military that allows people to serve openly and honestly will be stronger for it. As we celebrate Veterans Day and recognize the commitment and sacrifice of those who served, I hope other transgender service members will again have the experience of wearing that uniform knowing they can be their true selves.
Dana Delgardo is a retired Major in the U.S. Air Force