Transgender soldier back on the front lines

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Sgt. Shane Ortega, one of the Army's most outspoken transgender soldiers. (Facebook)
Sgt. Shane Ortega, one of the Army's most outspoken transgender soldiers. (Facebook)

Transgender soldier back on the front lines

by: William Cole | .
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | .
published: July 01, 2015

Sgt. Shane Ortega is a three-time combat veteran and Wheeler Army Airfield soldier with bulging biceps who can dead-lift 480 pounds and crank out dozens of pullups. On Saturday, he competed in the Ikaika Bodybuilding Championships at the Blaisdell Center, finishing fourth in the men's physique event.

But in the eyes of the Army -- at least for right now -- he is officially a "she" who has to use women's bathrooms on base and sometimes wear an ill-fitting and embarrassing female dress uniform with a blouse.

Now one of the Army's most outspoken transgender soldiers, Ortega is an "A type" go-getter who receives great performance reviews and fits in just fine with his CH-47 Chinook helicopter company.

But he is technically unacceptable to the Army and in a legal limbo that's about as uncomfortable as the women's clothes he occasionally has to wear.

"It's not ideal, is what I like to say," Ortega said in a phone interview. "I know that's so PC, but it's not an ideal situation. Obviously, I get very frustrated."

After ditching "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and allowing openly gay service members, the Defense Department still has to come to terms with transgender individuals who already are in the military, or want to serve, but are banned from doing so openly.

An estimated 15,500 transgender troops are on active duty and in the Guard or Reserve, according to the Williams Institute, which conducts research on sexual orientation at UCLA.

The White House and Pentagon have been inching toward official acceptance of transgender military members, and Ortega now finds himself on the front lines of the fight to be able to openly serve as one.

Air Force Senior Airman Logan Ireland, an Afghanistan war veteran who, like Ortega, transitioned from female to male, was the invited guest of President Barack Obama at the White House's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month reception Wednesday.

Ireland, whose command put him on special orders to attend in a male dress uniform, was accompanied by his fiancee, Army Cpl. Laila Villanueva, a transgender woman.

The Army and Air Force have adopted policies that make it much harder to discharge transgender service members, but official prohibitions remain.

Ortega, 28, who's been in the military for 10 years, recently wrote a letter to Obama as commander in chief, asking for a stop to transgender discharges and a review to repeal the ban.

He's also petitioned the Army for a gender identity change -- a request that already has been granted in at least one other case.

"Sir, as I near the middle of my career, the question comes up -- should I stay or should I go? Can I keep serving authentically?" Ortega wrote. "Can I continue to live the values of a warrior -- integrity, honor and selfless service? Can I do this while I continue to be misgendered and without discrimination protections? I have kept my word, my honor, and commitment true for 10 years now. I want to continue to serve our nation to the best of my ability."

Ortega noted that he's been working on LGBT policy in the military almost as long as he's been serving in it, including the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

He's received plenty of correspondence from transgender service members who feel desperate, alienated, alone and sometimes suicidal.

"They range from field grade officers to new privates," Ortega wrote in the letter to the president. "Everyone is fighting an internal war that no one wants to speak up for."

Field grade refers to majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels.

The arc of Ortega's military service over the past 10 years reflects a growing acceptance of transgender service members within the ranks but also a regulation challenge last summer that required legal intervention and led, he said, to an Army-wide policy change.

Ortega, who is black, Latino and Cherokee, graduated from high school in Richmond, Va. His dad was in the Navy, and his mom served in the Navy and Army. Although born female, for as long as Ortega can remember, he has identified as being male, he said.

From 2005 to 2009 he was in the Marines. From then on he's been in the Army -- the result of a decision, ultimately unsuccessful, to become an explosive ordnance disposal technician.

Ortega came out nationally in an April 9 Washington Post article, which noted that of his three combat tours -- two to Iraq and one to Afghanistan -- the first two were served as a woman, the last as a man.

"I felt the most comfortable and authentically me when in the combat theater," Ortega told news website RYOT. "No one worried about anything but my performance on the job. We lived, ate and showered in the same facilities, and we were professionals.

"It's here at home that I have to endure the daily scrutiny of other people's ideals of what my gender should be."

In 2011 he started taking testosterone -- with the knowledge of Army doctors, he said. He also had breast reduction surgery. The word POET (Ortega writes poetry), stars and an owl tattoo "which just reminds me to use logic, use wisdom" now spread across his chest, among other ink-work on his body.

In 2012 he started going by "Shane," said the soldier, who prefers not to divulge his original name.

"I think the most noticeable change when somebody begins testosterone is that their voice drops," Ortega said. But everyone is different, he said.

"My musculature obviously is more masculine. But before (taking testosterone) I was pretty physically fit," said Ortega, whose energy level seems high even over the phone.

Pullups and running "were already natural things that I had ability for," said the 5-foot-6, 160-pound soldier. "I honestly don't think that my physical appearance has changed. I would just say that maybe my face appears more masculine."

The 25th Infantry Division supports him, unofficially. At work he wears a flight suit that's worn by men and women, he said.

As part of the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, Ortega is subject to higher medical and physical standards than nonaviation soldiers, he said. The Army has known since 2011 that he's transgender, but aviation headquarters at Fort Rucker, Ala., noticed that last summer and said, "Oh, this is a female soldier on testosterone," and attempted to separate him from the Army, Ortega said.

He also was grounded from flying as a crew chief in Chinook helicopters.

Ortega said he turned to the ACLU and Maj. Shari Shugart, an Army lawyer, and the collective result was an approximately 200-page "thesis" outlining a case for transgender service that was sent to the Defense Department office of the surgeon general.

In March the Army changed its policy to require that any discharges of transgender soldiers must be approved by the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and Reserve affairs.

Ortega said he has a meeting with that assistant secretary of the Army, Debra S. Wada, in Washington, D.C., in July.

Some U.S. military leaders have expressed reservations about allowing openly transgender people to serve in the armed forces, while new Defense Secretary Ash Carter suggested he is open to the idea, the Associated Press reported in March.

The opposition centered on questions of where transgender troops would be housed, what berthing they would have on ships, which bathrooms they would use and whether their presence would affect the ability of small units to work well together, AP said.

The American Medical Association noted in early June that a commission co-chaired by a former acting Army surgeon general determined that providing transgender personnel with medically necessary health care would not be excessively burdensome, and passed a resolution affirming that "there is no medically valid reason to exclude transgender individuals from service in the U.S. military."

Caught in the middle are soldiers including Ortega who just want to serve their nation.

"The things that I'm doing, I'm intentionally trying to set honorable precedent," he said.