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Transgender Airman flies high with new AF policy

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --

On Ashleigh Buch’s 27th birthday, she woke up early, as usual, to go on a run before squadron physical training. She had always loved running, but today, as her feet pounded the pavement in the pre-dawn light, she prayed.

“Please, let me be a woman. It’s my birthday, please let me have this.”

She started to cry as she ran, repeating her prayer again and again in time with her in- and exhales.

But when she returned to her dorm to get ready for her day at the 316th Training Squadron at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, she still had to put on a male Airman Battle Uniform. Her hair, cropped short to her head, was in keeping with male regulations. She was, to the casual observer, still a man.

But she wasn’t, and had never been. And as of Oct. 14, 2016, Staff Sgt. Ashleigh Buch, an instructor with the 338th Combat Training Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, is legally a woman, in the eyes of the U.S. government and the Department of Defense.

During her time in the Air Force, she has watched it evolve from the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to today’s policy allowing openly transgender Airmen to serve. This change allows service members across the DOD, like Buch, to serve a cause they believe in while being openly themselves.

“When you have to serve and you aren’t able to be yourself, it’s going to dampen your spirit,” Buch said. “If you’re going to have to constantly worry about being outed, or constantly worry about your safety or your health – and do that all in silence – you’re never going to be as good as you could be. That’s the story of my life – in college, and then at the Defense Language Institute, nothing was as good as it could have been because I was always thinking about this, and always hiding.”

Buch entered the Air Force in 2009, hoping to gain experience that would help her become a better teacher.

“I was going to be doing education, but my whole belief is that if you’re going to be a teacher, you need a lot of life experiences to balance out the academic work, so you can relate to students from all different ranges,” she said. “I thought the military sounded like a really good option – travel, learn a new skill and add to my bag of tricks for teaching.”

Initially, Buch hoped the often hyper-masculine environment of the military would help suppress her sense of dysphoria.

“I had been dealing with all of this stuff since a very, very young age,” she said. “I didn’t know the term for being 'trans,' but I’ve known I wasn’t supposed to be a boy from very early on. So many things in my childhood don’t match up with typical male boyhood experiences.”

Despite her hopes, enlisting had the opposite effect Buch intended.

“It only got worse – it magnified how much I was struggling,” she said. “It was so difficult balancing my own identity I was trying so hard to suppress with being this ideal masculine person.”

After DADT was repealed in September 2011, Buch was disappointed to see the new protections did not extend to transgender service members.

“It was really heartbreaking – when it got repealed, everyone assumed everything was good for everyone,” she said. “They would talk about LGBT people being represented in the military and the Air Force in particular, when really, the T wasn’t represented. If someone found out you were transgender, it didn’t have to go up very high. It was your commander’s decision – they could kick you out and you would be done. That was it.”

By August 2012, Buch had had enough.

“I thought, ‘I need to have a plan. Whether I get out in six years or not, I need to have a plan to go forward, because I have to go forward. I can’t live my life like this anymore.’ I couldn’t hide myself and try to be someone I’m so obviously not.”

Buch began setting aside money to secure her future, saving for laser hair removal, surgery and money to keep her afloat after she eventually left the military.

“I came up with this plan, where I was going to do this very long, very slow transition, with the goal that when I did finally come out, it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone,” she said. “They’d be able to look back and think, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”

After a deployment, Buch began living and presenting as herself when not at work. As she transitioned, she felt free in a way she never had before.

“I was me, and I was finally getting to experience being me,” she said. “I felt like I had been drowning underwater, and I was slowly getting to the surface and taking my first breath. After every achievement or milestone, it was like I was spending more and more time above the water. I could breathe, and it got easier and easier and easier. There was no way I was going to go back in the water.”

But Buch did have to go back into the water every Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

At the time, the ban on transgender service was in place in part because of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition’s classification of Gender Identity Disorder under mental illnesses. But in May 2013, DSM-V was published, which reclassified Gender Identity Disorder as Gender Dysphoria, and no longer listed it under mental illnesses. Buch hoped it was a sign new transgender policy would emerge, but for two years, there was silence.

On July 13, 2015, the DOD released a memo from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, stating his intention to create a working group to study the policy and readiness implications of allowing openly transgender service members.

“At my direction, the working group will start with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness, unless and except where objective, practical impediments are identified,” Carter wrote.

In September 2015, a leaked DOD memo stated the ban on transgender service members would end May 27, 2016.

“It gave me hope and courage that I could make it,” Buch said. “But I was still hiding it, which was difficult, because I knew I would get in trouble if people found out. That’s what ended up leading up to me being outed in February 2016.”

Buch had moved offices a few weeks prior to that, and accidentally moved some saved e-mails in which she discussed being transgender, unknowingly saving them to a personal file on the share drive with the rest of her documents. Someone read them, and reported their contents to squadron leadership.

When Buch met with her flight commander, Capt. Tiffany Werner, that day, she thought they were just going to discuss her upcoming deployment. Buch had come out to her as transgender in November, and Werner had planned on helping her brainstorm ways to avoid being outed on the month-long deployment.

“I showed up with my notebook, eager to brainstorm,” Buch said. “She said, ‘So, we’re not actually here for the reason you think we are.’”

Werner told her about the individual finding the files, and explained that they had gone directly to squadron leadership to seek guidance.

This was an incredibly stressful experience for Buch, said Werner, who is now stationed at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

“I wanted, more than anything, to be her advocate,” she said. “I wanted to maintain the professionalism that is expected of all Airmen, but I was also ready to be there in her corner, and advocate in whatever way I needed to.”

To that end, Werner spoke with both Lt. Col. David Rice, commander of the 338th CTS, and Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Mallette, superintendent of the 338th, prior to speaking to Buch.

“Capt. Werner told me, ‘This is not the greatest situation, but I talked with Chief Mallette and Lt. Col. Rice, and everyone has your back,” Buch said. “’And, actually, Chief Mallette is showing up here in fifteen minutes.’”

Werner told her leadership wasn’t upset, and that Mallette just wanted to understand the situation and help her get the care she needed.

Mallette said he was nervous at that initial meeting, in part because he was aware of how precarious the military environment was for transgender service members.

“Given our social, political climate right now, there were a lot of question marks as to what the response from the general masses would be,” he said. “I was pretty secure regarding our squadron, because we’re very, very careful and explicit about explaining what the culture we foster is. We do all we can to talk the talk of zero tolerance, but really instill that across the unit.”

That meeting with Mallette and Werner morphed into weekly meetings with the squadron leadership, including Rice.

“We felt a moral responsibility to give her an avenue to protect her track record of excellence,” Rice said. “We sat down with her every single week — the chief, the shirt, the flight commander, the flight chief and myself — and we would say, ‘What can we do to help? Here’s what we know today, here’s how the policy is evolving.’ As we worked through those eight months, we sat down virtually every week and said, ‘How are you feeling? How are you doing? Here’s what we’ve done since last week.’”

The 338th CTS worked to write exception to policy letters to allow Buch to conform to female Air Force standards of dress, appearance, PT standards and facility usage. Progress was slow, which was frustrating for everyone, but Buch in particular.

“Our work didn’t really come out to anything, because it was really slow to move upwards,” Buch said. “Everyone was hesitant to sign off on it because there was no guidance for it. We were pushing this through on the hope that it would happen. But people held off on signing it, because they knew the policy was going to come out.”

Buch was cautioned again and again to stay patient, as her compliance with current standards was critical to receiving exceptions.

“A lot of times, the cases that have gone negative involve a lack of patience,” Mallette said. “We constantly begged her every week, please be patient. When you come to work, understand, you’re coming to work as a man. Some days were a struggle — I could see it in her eyes. She’d leave here at 4:30 p.m. Friday, and get to be Ashleigh until about 9 p.m. Sunday night. And she’d literally have to transform her entire emotional state of being.”

May 27th came and went, and finally, on June 30th, the ban on transgender service was lifted.

“Finally, I wouldn’t have to be living in fear of reprisal because I was 'trans,'” Buch said. “Had that policy not come out, I could still have gotten in trouble later on with a different commander and been kicked out.”

Still, there was no new policy on how to transition as an Airman. Patience was once again necessary.

“I kept getting the same response – ‘We appreciate your patience through all of this,’” she said. “I love hearing that, and it’s nice that people appreciate that, but it’s difficult when it’s my life being on hold.”

In addition to waiting for the exception to policy letters to be improved, Buch was also relegated to Duties to Not Include Flying. Still, there was some progress that gave Buch hope for her future.

“In the middle of September, my name change came through, which was awesome,” she said. “Being able to get my new ID with my own name – and it says female on it, too – and my new birth certificate happened really fast and felt so validating. I can’t even put words to it.”

Despite those changes, Buch was still addressed with male pronouns and expected to maintain male dress, appearance and physical fitness standards.

“Chief and I have a two-part responsibility to the unit,” Rice said. “We have to grow, develop, nurture, guide and lead our personnel, which is our most precious resource. But Chief and I also have a responsibility to make sure we have consistent good order and discipline with regards to Air Force policy and guidelines.”

It was a stressful time for Buch, but she tried to focus on her duties. While she was no longer able to instruct in the air, she did her best to excel at instructing in the classroom.

Mallette and Rice agreed that her teaching is a significant asset to the squadron.

“All of our tough students connect with her instantly,” Mallette said. “No matter how much extra time is given to them with training sorties, and no matter how much extra energy is spent on them, if they have a flight with her, they’re ready to go.”

Rice said Buch was a model for the other instructors to follow.

“I’ve asked all our instructors to walk tall, remain humble and wear their patches with pride,” he said. “No one does that better than Ashleigh.”

The weekly meetings with squadron leadership continued, and in due time, representatives from the the 55th Force Support Squadron’s Military Personnel Flight, 55th Wing Judge Advocate and 55th Wing Equal Opportunity were added to the table. 

Randy White, director of 55th Wing EO, attended some of the meetings and was impressed with the squadron’s handling of Buch’s case.

“I think this situation has been handled flawlessly in her squadron, particularly once it was brought to the attention of Col. Rice,” he said. “At every level along the way, Col. Rice asked, ‘Let us know how we can assist you in getting to a good place, so you can still be a valuable contributor to the Air Force, this organization and this mission.’ I will forever salute him for that step he took, because not everyone would have done that.”

After months of set-backs, Buch was able to officially change her gender marker to female on the Military Personnel Data System Oct. 14, 2016. It was the last hurdle she had to cross in order to be viewed as a woman by the DOD and the Air Force. For the first time in her life, Buch can live every day as the woman she is.

From Oct. 24 through Oct. 28, she survived a battery of physical and psychological tests at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, emerging triumphant with a waiver recommendation requesting she be allowed to fly once more. The combination of these two factors makes her the only openly transgender Airman in the Air Force who has been cleared to fly.

“My story has been so atypical of stories you usually hear from transgender people – you hear about rejection from family, work and society,” she said. “My story has been so different with the amount of support I’ve received from everyone – friends, family and work colleagues. It’s been so positive.”

Buch said she hopes her story can serve as an example for other transgender service members.

“It’s hard being the first in anything, because no one knows how to do it,” she said. “Every step I’ve taken has been really long and drawn out. I didn’t have a lot of trans people to look up to in the military. Reading other stories gave me hope, and so even if my story only helps one other person, in my opinion, that’s huge.”

Rice shares her excitement, and hopes her story can affect change – not just for other transgender service members, but with everyone.

“As someone who started eight months ago and didn’t have any idea about the transgender community, to someone who has worked to partner with Ashleigh on this journey — I think we have been changed as much as she has,” he said. “Certainly, she gets to come to work and live that, but we’re different people, and hopefully better people for having walked this process with her. I have to believe, ultimately, whether it’s on this base or somewhere else, she’s going to change someone’s future for the better.”

Mallette said he was moved watching Buch navigate such a difficult experience, and watching the way other service members helped her through the process.

“Ashleigh comes in and kicks butt in the mission, so to be able to walk this journey with Ashleigh and see the way the Air Force wrapped our family arms around her inspires me,” he said. “As I walk into the twilight of my career, I’m inspired seeing that the Air Force is still going to take care of people.”

Col. Marty Reynolds, commander of the 55th Wing, said he’s proud to see the Air Force opening a new frontier of inclusivity and acceptance.

“The military is a reflection of the country we defend,” he said. “We share a wide variety of backgrounds, values and beliefs – and together we make up the greatest Air Force in the world. In order to succeed, we need a diverse force focused on executing our mission. Ashleigh is an Airman who is doing just that and making Offutt great. I’m proud to have her on our team!"

Throughout the entire process, Buch said her wingmen helped her focus and find the strength to keep going, lifting her up and reassuring her during times of doubt.

“The wingman concept really is so important with my case,” she said. “Having people be there as outlets for me to go to and vent if I needed it. It sounds cheesy, but having those wingmen there and helping to carry me was so critical. I’m not going to take the credit for doing this on my own, because I had so much support.”

Buch is excited to see the future of the Air Force with openly serving transgender service members.

“Open transgender service is so important, because we really do have so many talented people who happen to be 'trans' in the military,” she said. “We were kicking them out of the military because they grew up in a situation where their body didn’t match their brain, even though they were perfectly healthy otherwise. But all of their positive traits are suppressed when you can’t serve openly. This is important because it allows not only that individual to reach their potential, but the whole Air Force.”