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Transgender Soldier At Fort Carson: 'I Would Love To Stay'

Capt. Alivia Stehlik
Michael de Yoanna
Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik is transgender. She works as a physical therapist at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.

When the Pentagon announced in 2016 it would end its ban on transgender troops, allowing them to serve openly, Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik was thrilled.

"It was pretty wild," Stehlik said as a smile flashed across her face. "It was unexpected and here we are."

The announcement was made during the Obama administration by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter. It prompted Stehlik to transition from male to female. She recalled being nervous about rejection by her peers and commanders at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.

"I left work on a Friday and then I showed up on Monday with a different name and different pronouns and some makeup because I didn't have long hair at the time and folks were remarkably gracious and lovely and kind and it was wonderful," Stehlik said.

Not long after, on July 26, 2017, President Trump tweeted: The "United States Government will not accept or allow ... Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military."

The Pentagon's final transgender policy is more nuanced than that. It affects about 1 percent of the military, or the 8,980 active-duty troops who identified themselves as transgender in a Defense Department survey. There could be exceptions made — or waivers issued — for some troops. Others could continue to serve so long as they do so as their birth gender.

In Stehlik's case, she hopes she's grandfathered in because she came out and transitioned after the military said it was OK to do so.

"There is some uncertainty here," Stehlik said. "There are no guarantees about all of this."

Some Christian and conservative groups have applauded the Trump administration's efforts to reinstate the ban, including the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

Transgender people are "a group of people that statistically have shown, for whatever reason, that they're more predisposed to suicide and severe anxiety," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, who directs the foundation's Center for National Defense.

He cited the Pentagon's latest memo that claims transgender troops can negatively affect military readiness.

"The criteria that I think the Pentagon is endeavoring to apply here is fairly consistent with other situations like this, like severe depressive disorder, bipolar, other medical conditions, which indicate that military service may put them in greater harm, may subject them to even more mental anxiety, more risk of having some sort of mental episode," Spoehr said.

Kaelan McCarthy
Credit Michael de Yoanna / KUNC
Kaelan McCarthy of Fort Collins transitioned from female to male after leaving the Navy.

Kaelan McCarthy, a Navy veteran from Fort Collins, said that the Trump administration's military transgender policy could open the door for the bullying of transgender troops, rejection and discrimination. Studies have shown those are all considered risk factors that worsen mental health issues for transgender people.

"It's life-threatening because there are people, and even me at some point, you know, I attempted suicide," said McCarthy, who transitioned from female to male after leaving the military. "If you can't present as the person that you are, if you're restricted from that, that is mentally, along with physically, devastating and some people cannot handle that. So it has the potential of being life-threatening if you're telling somebody that you cannot present as the person that you are."

U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who represents Colorado's 6th District, is supporting bipartisan legislation that would essentially turn back the clock to 2016 and allow transgender troops to serve openly.

"What I'm afraid of is that the administration seems to be using the military as a tool to advance its culture wars," Crow said. "The military, besides being the force that has to defend our nation, is also a standard bearer of our values. It reflects our values as a nation, and you know, it was one of the first institutions to desegregate after World War II and it has always kind of led the way on those issues."

Crow sits on the Armed Services Committee and may also push for hearings on the issue.

Prior to the Pentagon's lift on the ban in 2016, the RAND Corporation studied transgender troops. It found that they pose "minimal impact on (military) readiness and health care costs."

Stehlik, who entered the Army about a decade ago and initially served with the infantry before finding her niche as a physical therapist, is stung by the idea that troops like her downgrade the overall readiness of the military. Some accommodations may need to be made, she acknowledged, such as time for those who transition.

RAND put a price tag of $2.4-$8.4 million on transgender health, or approximately a 0.13-percent increase in spending.

RAND put a price tag of $2.4 million to $8.4 million on transgender health, or approximately a 0.13-percent increase in spending. Stehlik noted many troops face health issues at some point in their careers and all must meet fitness criteria to continue to serve.

"The same process happens for every soldier before we deploy," she said. "Do you meet the standards? Can you meet the standards? Can you deploy? In every unit, some people don't for a host of reasons."

For Stehlik, the opposite happened. When she learned that a unit was going to deploy to Afghanistan without a physical therapist, she stepped up and asked to go and was sent.

What Stehlik feared most about transitioning genders was the possibility of being rejected. She worried needlessly, she said, because her peers and commanders embraced her.

"It's like family," Stehlik said of her Army peers at Fort Carson. "I can't overstate how much this has opened communication with soldiers and with leaders and with people everywhere — folks that I don't think would have talked to me before."

That outcome is what the Pentagon had envisioned in 2016. Ash Carter said at the time that lifting the transgender ban would open the military's doors to all the best talent to maintain what he called the "finest fighting force the world has ever known."

"I would love to stay," Stehlik said. "I think that I have a lot to offer."

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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