Permanently Disqualified. Those were the words stamped on the first piece of documentation I ever received from the United States Military. I was 17, and was attempting to pursue a dream that began at the age of 11. Those two words broke me more than anything I had experienced in my life.
The journey to enlisting in the military is anything but short and sweet. Before any volunteer departs for boot camp (at least in the Navy) you must complete a written aptitude test called the ASVAB, and a physical screening at a facility known as MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station). It was at this facility that I thought my dream was coming to an end.
I started my day before sunrise, driving to the MEPS station in Oakland with my father. After the ASVAB, the medical processing begins. It is thorough, but quick. You are one among many, which in hind sight is a good first look at the reality of military life. All matter of medical checks are completed, from dental to psychological screening. You also receive your first dose of what is lovingly referred to as “hurry up and wait.” You are rushed from one area to the next, then wait for long periods of time until your turn is called. To a 17-year-old young man, it was stressful.
One of the last things I was required to do was a simple blood pressure test. This occurred at the end of the day, and I was spent long before it began. I thought nothing of the test, as I had had my blood pressure tested many times before, without incident. This day was different. The electronic machine registered my blood pressure as outside the parameters acceptable for military service. Needless to say, it got my attention. A doctor explained to me the acceptable range for enlistment and processing into service, and then informed me I would have two more opportunities to be retested. All I could think of in that moment was that my dream was over. I took the remaining two tests, and each time the numbers climbed higher and higher. The same doctor reviewed them, explained that I was disqualified from serving, stamped my record, and sent me on my way.
I was destroyed. My father, who also served in the Navy, refused to accept that outcome, and immediately went into the facility to speak to someone in charge. I don’t remember much of what happened for the rest of the day, but it turned out that I would have the opportunity to see a cardiac specialist, and return to the Oakland MEPS center at a later date to retest my blood pressure. Had it not been for that opportunity, the story arc of my life would be much different.
That day was a wakeup call for me. I realized, that day, that the military did not need me. I was motivated, dedicated, and ready to serve my country, and none of that mattered. The standards required for baseline military service are set by the leadership of the military, and more importantly, the demands required of service. You either meet them, or you do not.
In the past week, I have heard the phrase “The military is not a social experiment” more times than I thought possible in a lifetime. This is a simplistic way to look at a complex organization, and it does not address the fact that our country, the democracy, freedoms, and liberties are in and of themselves, are a social experiment. The military, much like this country is a melting pot. I served with both sexes, and every race and religion. I served with individuals who had trust funds, and those that sought military service as an escape from crippling poverty in the inner cities. Regardless of background, each and every one of those individuals voluntarily surrendered many of their personal wants, needs, and desires, not to mention constitutionally afforded rights to serve this county, and its citizens. Often this service is in close proximity with little to no privacy, and post 9/11, often in war zones. There could be no truer social experiment than pouring those ingredients into the melting pot, seasoning with war, and setting the temperature to bake for nearly two decades.
The military is a social experiment, but more importantly, it is a bureaucracy. Like all bureaucracies, it works well when confronted with its core competencies, and it struggles, and fails as it approaches the fringe. I use that term not to describe the transgender community, but to describe the number of individuals in comparison to the total serving in the military, a fraction of a fraction of a percent. The social experiment of the military works because the individuals serving agree to serve something greater than themselves, instead of making their service about them.
The military exists to fight and win wars. It is a true statement, but the reality is very nuanced. Sometimes actions are offensive in nature, and sometimes they are defensive. During my time in service, I acted as a diplomat, liaison, ambassador, security guard, crime scene tech, spokesman, babysitter, and everything in between. I used my brain more often than I used bullets. In the course of my duties, regardless of what shape and form they took, the underlying purpose never changed. I was part of an organization that was created to bear arms, and use them if needed.
The only measuring stick that matters, and the only argument that holds any water, is the impact on efficiency and effectiveness of the military completing its primary tasks. If you approach this issue from any other direction (cost, discrimination, etc.), at least in my opinion, you are bastardizing the argument to fit your own agenda. It is not a matter of money, fairness, or experiments. It is a matter of whether or not the military is enhanced, or hindered from doing its job because of this issue, period.
Many people have pointed to Chris/Kristen Beck, an individual from the SEAL community that identifies as transgender. I have never met, or worked with this person, and have watched this from a distance. When Beck responded to President Trumps’ tweet, many people jumped on the bandwagon, and I think there is some clarification due. First, Chris Beck was a Navy SEAL, not Kristen. That may seem harsh to some, but it is also accurate. Chris, after military service, came forward as identifying as transgender, not during his time in the service. I have no doubt that he struggled with his identity during service, but he chose to transition (I do not know if that is the correct term) post service. He did not serve as a transgender SEAL. I can only speculate as to why he made that choice, but given my experience with the community, I think it is fair to assume he realized that making the decision while serving would have been disruptive to the team, and his teammates, and would have had a negative impact on both, as well as his career. He would have been correct, on all accounts. Anything that creates friction and distraction in a small unit, negatively impacting ability to meet the standards is addressed. In many cases, this manifests itself in personal issues such as alcohol and substance abuse problems, addictive behavior, financial problems, and many more. These issues are not as uncommon as you may think. They are addressed, and if the impact to the team cannot be negated, they are removed, regardless of how capable an operator they are.
The team is first, not the individual. That is the underlying principle of all military service.
I have no idea what it would be like to be transgender. I cannot even fathom the difficulty in dealing with the internal struggle, let alone the spectrum of reactions from society. The suicide rate, which is staggering, is tragic, but also does not surprise me. My heart goes out to that community, and I served for them as well. They deserve the space and freedom this country provides, to be who they feel they should be, just as much as their neighbor, who may hate what they stand for.
From a personal perspective, as with most issues, I don’t care how people choose to live their lives. I don’t care about your beliefs, I will respect them even if they are counter to my own. I have no idea if I have ever served with anyone who is transgender. I have no idea, because I never asked, and didn’t care. I cared about two things, competence, and meeting the standards. I served with every aspect that our society has to offer, and spent zero percent of my time concerned with their background, or beliefs, unless or until it impacted performance.
We need the military. We need the space provided by the military to continue the experiment that is the United States of America. For the military to remain effective, the demands of the occupation, along with the leadership, need the ability to determine the standard and criteria for service. Those that do not meet it, should not be considered.
Had I not been able to show the military doctors an improvement in my blood pressure, I would not have been able to serve. My dream would have been destroyed. It says nothing about me, my patriotism, my passion for this country, or my desire to serve. It says the military does not need me, and it does not need you if you don’t meet the standards, regardless of how much you want it. The military is, and should continue to be an available option for all citizens, but submitting an application for service does not guarantee admission. It is not a right, it is a privilege.
Is that fair? No, it is not.
I have seen more war than some, and far less than others. It is, without a doubt, the most unfair environment achievable by man. If you volunteer for military service, that is what you are signing up for.
Let’s try to not forget that.