Reflecting on the military’s shift to more inclusive ranks

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew Vondrasek
  • 170th Operations Support Squadron

I was sitting on the third floor of Building C on my very first day in the Air Force. Master Sgt. Alden Harriman pulled out one of the many pieces of paperwork we were going through and placed it on the desk in front of me. He then went over it, defining what same-sex sexual contact was. He noted that although no one in my chain of command would ever ask me if I engaged in same-sex sexual behaviors, that If I openly spoke about it to them, that I could be discharged from the Air Force.

 I remember initially thinking that this was quite the bizarre thing to be talking about, and surely there were more pressing issues concerning someone who had just enlisted. It only took a few moments for me to realize he was going over the Department of Defense’s Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell policy.

 Under the DADT policy, about 15,000 service members were discharged from the military for being gay or lesbian. DADT would officially end just a few weeks after I signed that document, and since Sept. 20, 2011, gay and lesbian service members have been able to serve openly.

 As a gay Airman looking back at that moment, a lot of thoughts cross through my mind. It seems like this happened just yesterday, but it also seems like this was so very long ago in a different time and place. Perhaps the most striking thought, is how much has changed since I first enlisted.

 I was walking around Bennie Davis Maintenance Facility about a year ago and saw multiple rainbow posters that displayed “Air Force Celebrates LGBT Pride” across them. I remember remarking to a friend that I never thought I would have seen that when I first enlisted.

 Apparently, I wasn’t the only one having these kind of thoughts. When I attended Airman Leadership School here at Offutt, I had the opportunity to talk with Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force #6 James McCoy. At the time, the debate was raging on the national scene about transgendered service members in the military. Things almost felt like deja-vu with DADT, due to the fact that it was obvious that there were thousands of transgendered service members in the military already. In effect, they were serving, but unable to serve openly, and it appeared that the Obama administration would soon change that. I asked Chief McCoy what he thought about that, and if he ever thought he would see things like this when he first enlisted. He was very honest, and said he didn’t know what a transgendered person was when he first saw it in the news, and he got out his dictionary at home and looked it up. He also noted that he never would have predicted the changes with DADT or the transgendered policies, but that the Air Force has changed a great deal since he was in. In his response, I saw that he had a sincere willingness to learn and understand, and face the issues that other airmen in the Air Force deal with.

 Last month, I attended transgender awareness training along with the rest of my group. Before the brief began, I snapped a photo of the first slide of the power point and sent it to a friend, once again remarking, “Never thought I would have seen this.”

 The two commanders giving the briefing seemed relieved that the Air Force had finally provided guidance on the issue and that commanders no longer had to operate in a gray area. An important distinction in the official policy is that “The U.S. Air Force should be open to all who can meet the rigorous standards for military service and readiness” (AFPM 2016-36-01) i.e. a qualified Airman should not be discharged just because they are transgendered.

 These policies are finally coming around to the full realization that the Air Force and broader DOD will never reach its full potential if we limit our talent pool arbitrarily. Even more than that, being more inclusive and diverse doesn’t just help us reach our full potential, it gives us a decisive advantage.

 We have come a long way, and a lot has happened in my short six year enlistment. Of all the thoughts crossing my mind, I would have to say ‘proud’ stands out.

 I’m proud of the progress the Air Force, the DOD, and our country has made.

 I’m proud to be gay, and I’m proud to be an American Airman. I am very proud to be both.