“This is the quality of soldier we are now at risk of losing”: Trans troops speak to Congress

For the first time, five active-duty transgender service members testified before Congress in response to the President’s prejudiced ban.

In the year and a half since President Donald Trump tweeted his intent to ban transgender people from serving in the military, he and his administration have been met with resistance from lawmakers, doctors, lawyers, and military officials alike.

Medical groups like the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have denounced the ban as harmful and based on junk science. Lawmakers from both parties have voiced their opposition, with a bipartisan bill reversing the ban introduced earlier this month. And all four chiefs of the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marines have thoroughly refuted the idea that transgender people represent any threat to unit cohesion, morale, or the strength of our armed forces.

Now, for the first time since the ban was introduced, transgender service members are telling Congress exactly what it feels like to have your Commander In Chief use prejudice and fear to call you unfit and a threat to your fellow soldiers. Five active duty service members addressed the House Armed Services Committee about their life, their service, and what they think of the ban.

Lieutenant Commander Blake Dremann

Having been deployed in the US Navy 11 times, Lt. Cmd. Dremann served in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne and now serves as a supply chain manager for the Defense Department’s storied system for monitoring and transporting nuclear materials.

“I’ve been told three times that something other than my capability to do the job was the reason that I wasn’t worthy of an opportunity,” Dremann told the Committee. “First for my gender assigned at birth, second for sexual orientation prior to transition, and third for my gender identity.”

Before beginning his transition, Dremann had been excluded by the military’s ban on submarine service by female recruits and had lived in the closet under the harmful “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. After those limits were changed in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Dremann began to serve in a submarine squadron.

“I succeeded as a submariner and was ranked as the top supply officer in the submarine squadron,” said Dremann. “However, despite all of my success, there was still something amiss and had to change.”

Dremann began his transition in 2013, two years before the military would officially lift its ban on transgender troops under Secretary Ashton Carter and President Barack Obama.

“The next year I was a more confident officer and a better leader. It culminated in my ship being named top boat in the squadron and 2015 I won the Navy League’s Batchelder award, given to the top 5 junior officers in the Navy’s Supply Corps for contributions to the operational readiness of the fleet.”

Dremann, president of military advocacy group SPARTA, led efforts in the military to integrate open service for transgender people, finding “it was the same with women in submarines and the repeal of DADT. Good leaders can take a team and make it work. Great leaders mold their teams to exceed expectations because it doesn’t matter if you are female or LGBT. What matters is that each member is capable and focused on the mission.”

With this experience, Dremann knows Trump’s transgender ban is harmful not just to troops like himself, but to the military as a whole.

“Readiness and lethality of our military cannot be maintained by closing doors to the best and brightest this country has to offer,” he told the committee. “It just so happens that some of the best and brightest happen to be transgender.”

Captain Alivia Stehlik

Captain Stehlik served as 6 years in the infantry before studying to become a staff physical therapist for recruits in 2016. “I decided to become an Army physical therapist because I believed that Soldiers deserve medical providers who have walked in their shoes, and I have.”

After beginning her transition in 2017, Stehlik was concerned other troops would be uncomfortable around her — making her treatment of their injuries all that much harder. “There is no way to be a good physical therapist at a distance,” she told the Committee.

Much to the contrary, however, Stehlik — who worked with over 1700 wounded service members in her time — found her fellow service members were more than willing to work with someone living their authentic life.

“On the deployment to Afghanistan as a transgender woman,” Captain Stehlik said, “soldiers opened up. They talked to me, and told me things they would never have before,” she said. I asked them why, and the consistent answer was that they valued my authenticity, my courage in being myself. And while I was concerned that my presence might feel invasive to other women, at every turn they welcomed me into their lives and living spaces with open arms. I was part of their family.”

Contradicting the administration’s claims that transgender people are unfit for service, Stehlik strongly argued her transition only made her more capable and more effective to the military.

“I belong in a combat arms unit, taking care of my Soldiers,” she said. “I worked tirelessly to ensure that nothing could jeopardize that. It might be tempting to say that I am the exception, but that’s simply not true. Transgender service members around the world have done the same thing — add to the readiness and lethality of the United States Military.”

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Akira Wyatt

Like many who enlist, Wyatt knew she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, a retired US Marine. But she also enlisted to honor the promise her parents sought when they migrated to the US from the Philippines.

Both parents, she told the committee, “showed us that freedom fosters a person’s chances for success and in bringing us here gave us the greatest gift: a chance to achieve high goals and to contribute to society.”

After serving for four years as a medic with the Navy, however, she had a life experience that “rocked me to my core,” she told the Committee.

While serving in a region of the Philippines in a sick bay, Wyatt was told she would be providing follow-up care to Private First Class Joseph Pemberton. Pemberton was in the custody of Philippine police for the murder of Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman he had met on shore. Wyatt, still closeted, was tasked with providing his check-up.

“I was pretty naïve until I saw him face to face,” she said. “During his work up, I looked into his eyes and it shook me. Cliché as it may sound, I saw darkness. He felt cold and was without remorse for what he had done. In his presence, I thought it could have been me and I felt the painful moments before Jennifer’s death.”

While chilling, the experience only made Wyatt more resolved in her need to transition. “I told myself I will transition and I won’t be afraid to, even if I might face the same circumstances as Jennifer did that night. Even if it comes from the hands of my marines.”

During her transition, she continued to earn high marks for her devotion to her work and the support she showed other troops.

“My experiences with my Marine and Navy comrades show that unit cohesion and readiness are not adversely impacted by having a transgender service member included,” said Wyatt. “I’ve formed incredibly tight bonds with the people I’ve worked with and I would follow them to the ends of the Earth to ensure they get the critical battlefield care they need to continue the fight.”

Staff Sergeant Patricia King

After serving 16 years in the Army and completing three tours in Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Patricia King was given control an elite Stryker squad stationed outside of Fort Lewis in Washington state.

Starting with the squad just a year after beginning her transition, Sergeant King noticed she was only one of two women in the unit. In fact, the building housing she and her colleagues only had a men’s restroom, leading King to hang a flippable sign by the restroom door — blue for men and pink for women.

“Since I was an “‘only,’” she told the Committee, “the onus was on me to flip the sign when I needed to use the restroom. That pink female sign represented my first few weeks there. Wherever I went, I was ‘the pink sign in the room.’ However, it didn’t take long before my peers saw past my gender and the only thing that mattered was how well I could do my job.”

King quickly earned the nickname “Squad Mom” among her underlings.

“Within a month, we made our Stryker the best in battalion and our squad the most cohesive,” she said. “This is because each of us felt able to bring our whole self to work. There were no secrets, no false bravado or hiding. My authenticity inspired theirs and that — along with strong leadership, hard work, and solid training — built unit cohesion in a way I have not seen in almost 20 years of service.”

Throughout her testimony, King revisited one word: Leadership.

“I have witnessed first-hand that troops want strong leaders. Leaders who care for them. Leaders who can inspire them. They don’t care if the leaders are transgender. They don’t care if the leaders are gay, bi or straight, male or female. They don’t care which bathroom or shower you use. The questions that resound for them are: Can you do your job and accomplish the mission? Can you put rounds on target in the heat of battle? Can you look out for your troops’ best interests? If a Soldier-Leader can do those well, everything else doesn’t really matter.”

Captain Jennifer Peace

In her fifteen years of service to the US Army, Captain Jennifer Peace has not found herself short of accomplishments. After five deployments as an elisted solider — including tours through Iraq and Afghanistan — she was awarded the Noncommissioned Officer of the Year Award at Fort Huachuca and the Distinguished Honor Graduate after graduating from the Military Intelligence Captains Course. The latter led to a prestigious nomination to attend the National Intelligence University.

Listing her accomplishments before the Committee, Peace urged lawmakers to take her accomplishments as an example of what transgender people can do in our military.

“I tell you this not to highlight my own success, but to illustrate what all trans service members are capable of,” said Peace, “performing at the top of their career fields and contributing significantly to the defense of the nation. This is the quality of Soldiers we are now at risk of losing.”

Peace joined medical professionals in condemning the false evidence the Trump administration put forth to justify its ban against service members like her.

Peace stressed her own medical transition required little to no adjustment and mirrored needs met for other troops with medical needs. “Just like with any other Soldier, our medical providers determine what is necessary,” she told the Committee. “But command influences the timeline. With four surgeries and a complete medical transition, I was non-deployable for less time than a single pregnancy.”

As a Company Commander, Captain Peace also knows what it takes to establish unity and cohesion among her colleagues in the armed forces.

“A unit cannot function if individuals do not have trust in their leadership and trust in their fellow soldiers,” she said. “If they do not support and take care of each other. If they do not believe in each other’s abilities and dedication. I was open as a trans service member when I was in command, and I felt an overwhelming amount of support from my commander, from my first sergeant, from my peers and subordinates alike.”

As Peace noted, it actively harms unit cohesion to deny the military the service of qualified and esteemed troops like herself.

“Excluding a portion of the population when we cannot meet recruiting goals — that impacts readiness. And watching as those who you serve with and respect are told they are no longer welcome in service — that impacts moral. The honorable service of those who are qualified, capable and willing has not and will not.”