Fit to Serve?


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.









27 thoughts on “Fit to Serve?

  1. Andy.
    I was introduced to you via the TNQ podcast and was totally blown away during your interview and your perspective on life. I lead my company with the same mindset and feel it is my duty to lead the many under my watch with the brutal honesty and conviction you display. Like the military, life also is not fair and if we all try to get 1% better each day we can change our lives and the country. You have a great gift- keep up the incredible work. You never know how many people you are reaching. You reached me and I reach hundreds, they reach hundreds etc… it makes a difference.


    Steve Wall


  2. If you are team centered, mission focused, and effort maximized, not too many have the energy to be that concerned about the private life of the person next to you. Stress and long hours have a way of wearing down personal barriers and insecurities. Those have been some of my experiences and I enjoyed those challenges while serving, especially later in life. Re-unions are great!


  3. I told myself I wasn’t going to comment but…. I agree that working with a transgender person can be very distracting and can impact effectiveness. As a civilian employee of the USN I worked/served with a transgender person off and on over the course of several years. We were in different departments so we didn’t work together all the time, but interacted on a regular basis in the course of our duties. When we first met he was living as a male and there were no distraction or interaction problems. Over the course of those several years, I, along with everyone else, watched him transform into a lovely woman. As the progression became more pronounced it made the guys I worked with extremely uncomfortable until I was the only one from my department who was comfortable interacting with her. Ultimately I was ‘assigned’ the job of interacting with her so no one else would have to. Because of the nature of her job, not to mention that she was the best in her department at it, I ended up spending a lot of time with her on behalf of other people in my department in addition to doing my own job while things in my department that were affected by hers got slowed down. It wasn’t fair to either her or me. The discrimination against her by the other members of my department was wrong but very real. I can only imagine how much worse it would have been in a war zone or similar environment. I agree that if you are qualified and meet the standards you should be able to serve, but on the other hand, some people cause so much distraction, even unintentionally, that they do impact effectiveness. She was excellent at her job and I liked her very much, but her transitioning (I don’t know if that is the correct word either) had a negative impact on my department and probably others as well. It’s not fair, but it’s real.


    • My first reply ever – crazy! The above comment reminded me of tech school almost 30 years ago. I was in training with a bunch of white guys from the south and midwest, and they were uncomfortable around blacks. A few from some pretty rural areas had little to no interactions with black people before tech school, and black people just made them feel uncomfortable. During one block of instruction we had a black Staff Sergeant as our instructor, and it had a negative impact on our training because they were so uncomfortable. Next block we had a generic white guy as the instructor and everyone was more at ease. It wasn’t the SSgt’s fault, but he unintentionally, negatively impacted the training environment just because he was black (and we were ignorant – some racist). After 20+ years, some of these guys are still “uncomfortable” around blacks. I don’t know if it’s a totally accurate or fair comparison – blacks and trans, but it did remind me of my tech school class. In the end, I don’t think the SSgt should have been kicked out because he made our class feel uncomfortable. The guy was fully qualified to do the job. I’ve met one or two trans in my life – almost 50 now, and I admit I think they look weird to me, and I felt awkward around them, but if they volunteer and can physically/mentally do a job to defend the country, then why not? Yeah it’s not fair that I’m uncomfortable, but it’s real, and I guess in life you have to deal with being uncomfortable sometimes because it’s about the bigger picture of defending the country with the best people. Do you care what color or gender identity the medic saving your life is? Would you refuse actionable targeting information from an intel analyst because they were trans? I want someone physically able, hard working and with a good attitude to do the job. I was never special ops or a grunt so can’t speak to those situations – just medical and flight crew. I’m retired now so whatever – just my .02.


      • The uncomfortable feeling can apply to blacks, trans, women, even white males (in countries like Japan), basically anyone who is ‘different’ from the norm. I’m a woman who has spent nearly all my academic and work career in male-dominated fields. I know some of the guys I worked with were uncomfortable around me. I had to learn how to fit in to make them feel more comfortable working with me and so I became more or less accepted and had several guys actively trying to get me to work with/for them. The biggest problem I saw other than outright irrational prejudice was when someone, usually another woman in my case, showed up expecting to be treated special because she was legally ‘equal’ to the guys. She often demanded to be treated as good as if not better than I was but without adapting or putting in the work I did to get there. That attitude understandably irritated the guys and I usually got asked what was wrong with her or why more women weren’t like me. Being uncomfortable around another person who is different from you isn’t a valid reason to exclude from military service in my opinion. But someone who is exaggerating the differences or drawing attention to him/herself in such a way that it creates problems isn’t someone I want to work with for very long in any environment.


  4. You should run for president and write all your speeches yourself, like Abraham Lincoln did.
    Very well written, sir!
    Thank you for you service and sacrifices.


  5. Is this what you would tell your child if they came to you as being transgender and they wanted to join the military? Or would you be your father and make sure their dream was met?


    • My father did not ensure my dream was met, he ensured I would have another opportunity to meet the standards. If the results had been the same, the dream would have been over, regardless of what he had done.

      Yes, what I wrote is exactly what I would tell my child, because it is the truth, no need to change a single word.


  6. Well written. Thank you for your clarity and insight. And it is what I hope I would have had the eloquence to share with my kids if they had come to me with it. As a retired high school teacher, I saw the blurring of what right, privilege, responsibility, and accountability mean. Real life isn’t fair. Period.


  7. Thanks for breaking down a complex and confusing issue and reminding us that the world is not going to change to accommodate us. Enjoy your writing and look forward to your next post.


  8. Andy, having known you all your life, I can understand where this comes from. One thing I am not so sure of is that this is an article for or against having those different from ourselves serving or working with us, and I think that that is a good thing. All of the endeavors I have been involved with from sports, military, and civilian life have exposed me to a variety of INDIVIDUALS. As you say, as long as the mission (military or civilian) is not compromised, then who cares. A huge part of this is learning to accept yourself for who you are and others for who they are (or propose to be). As with others, I say great article. Keep up the great job of putting forth your confessions (not of an idiot), they doing a lot to get people thinking and maybe talking. Which in the long run make us all better.


  9. Speaking from “across the ocean”…
    I personally respect transgender people: for me, they are just personalities trapped in the “wrong body” and are still individual personalities. If I like and / or “click” with a personality, it does not matter who they are, as to say, “externally”.
    I am also a female. Yes, traditionally one of the “weak” and supposed to be a “damsel in distress” – and I am not any of these. I have a personal hate for terms like “honey” when I am addressed by them when at work. I wear heels but I am often better than those who don’t (not boasting, just stating the facts).
    Yet, I was following the news that women were officially allowed to try to become Navy SEALs. This is wrong. Transgender serving in SOF is also wrong. With all respects to all sorts of human beings, there are things each individual as best at and there are things where only certain individuals are suited for.


  10. Andy, taking on the impossible task of saying what you said is just amazing. Kudos to you. Thank you and keep it up. We all need our eyes, and hearts, opened up.


  11. Quick question for you:
    My son is kind of the way you were when you were little, at least as far as wanting to be a navy seal. He’s a sophomore in high school and is devastated because one of his friends told him that to become a Navy seal you have to be an American citizen. Well, he is not. At least not until we can afford to be naturalized. Is that true that you have to be an American to be considered for this kind of service? He is a legal alien.



  12. I lost my chance at an 18X contract and an officer commission due to the Army’s unwillingness to grant me a medical waiver, despite the MEPS doc writing his recommendation for it on my chart. Prior to, I let myself get in the mindset of the future reality of being an SF officer, and then the denial came in and I’ve been pissed ever since. Glad you got through, though. I wish I could have served with people like you. Maybe in the next life.


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