Colonel Sheri Swokowski: Leaving No Soldier Behind

sheri sowoskiIt is the nature of a soldier to sacrifice, to relinquish their heart, mind, soul and body in the service of their country. They live by the dictates of honor and code, where I is just a small fragment of we, and where one’s self is just a triviality.

And part of that code is to never abandon a just cause, to continue the fight even when victory seems unattainable, and never leave your brothers and sisters in harm’s way.

By those standards, there is no finer an example of a soldier than Colonel Sheri Swokowski. Although she has long since retired from active service, she continues to fight for the ideals that we cherish as a nation. Human rights. Equality. Social justice.

And she refuses to leave her fellow soldiers on the battlefield to fend for themselves; she’s got their back.

There’s an irony to Sheri’s story. She made the ultimate sacrifice, and gave her life for her country. But she didn’t die; instead, she willingly made the decision not to live the life she was born to live.

“I sacrificed my authenticity for decades out of love and respect for my family and the profession I loved,” the Colonel told me, explaining that being openly Transgender would have ended her military career. “At the same time, I don’t know there is anything I would have changed about my journey. My military leadership opportunities helped me cope with stressors due to my gender identity. The skill sets I developed as an agency change manager helped me immeasurably once I made the decision to transition.”

The military appreciated her obvious talents, and recognized the leadership qualities she exhibited. They invested time and money in developing these skills, and Sheri attended Wisconsin Military Academy, where she earned her commission.

Had she come out as Transgender, she would have lost that commission. She would have been discharged from the Service, and the Army would have squandered all the time and money that they had invested in her. Equally bewildering, they would have lost the very kind of talented individual that they so desperately need, want, and seek to recruit.

Her choice of clothing wouldn’t have made her any less qualified to do her job, but she can’t help but speculate how much better a non-commissioned officer and officer she could have been, had she been able to live her authentic life.

It was only after she retired from active duty that she started her transition. At the time in 2007, she held the position as lead instructor at the US Army Force Management School. When she informed Human Resources that she would be returning to work as Sheri, she did so with the expectation of acceptance, although she fully realized that it would take some time to adjust to the situation. Along with her counsellor, Sheri offered to meet with the staff and faculty in order to inform and educate them about Transgender matters, but she was assured that they were all retired officers, and could deal with the situation without any additional training.

Sheri was not the least bit anxious about returning to work; she was excited to continue her career as her authentic self. For the first in her life, she was completely comfortable and confidant being authentic. It’s a word that Sheri often uses to describe herself.

That morning, she met with the Director and his Deputy, who welcomed her back to work. He thanked her for helping out with the course, adding, “We’ve already hired your replacement.”

Sheri was stunned, and demanded to know why she was being dismissed. Her job performance was outstanding, and the Director even admitted that she had done nothing wrong. So then why was she being fired?

The Director was unwilling to admit the ugly truth, and engaged in a monologue of doublespeak to explain the unexplainable. As he rambled on, the verbiage shifted. At first, he spoke of the situation, which quickly became your situation, eventually morphing into your problem.

Her problem was not of her own making. Her problem was the same problem that every oppressed minority had to deal with and overcome since the beginning of civilization. Hatred, bigotry, and discrimination.

“We were still under Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy when I retired in 2004,” she explained. “During my time in uniform, society was more accepting than the military. Now, we are making progress, but there is still much work required. It was clear that some individuals still harbored fears and animosity toward the LGBT community.”

But not everyone in the Military community proved to be as myopic as Sheri’s former employees. Shortly after being fired, she was hired to be an analyst at the Pentagon. The person who hired her was only interested in her qualifications, not her exterior appearance.

The Security Manager attempted to make an issue over her clearance, but the Deputy Division Chief told him to return to his office and do his job. There never was an issue with her clearance; it was just an excuse to deny an extremely qualified Transgender woman the job she rightfully deserved.

Sheri excelled at her job, representing the ACSIM (Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management) at the weekly Strategic Planning video teleconference. Although the tiered communications suite typically had all 70 seats filled to capacity, she always had one of the eight seats at the table reserved for her. Sheri’s civilian experience at the Department of Defense was entirely positive; it was professional, cordial, social, and based solely on performance.

It wasn’t her original intent to become an activist, but the unpleasant experience she had at the Force Management School convinced Sheri to advocate for other Transgender people in the military, many of whom could not speak out for themselves because of the consequences of authenticity.

Sheri became active with SPART*A, the principal advocate for Trans service members, as well as the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA). In 2008, she began working with then Rep. Tammy Baldwin, fighting to secure basic civil rights for members of the Transgender community.

But even though she was totally at odds with the military’s ban against Transgender people serving their country, Sheri Swokowski was a soldier who lived and loved the Service. It was her obligation and her duty to fight the injustice, for that is the charge of an Army officer. How can we justify fighting for liberty and freedom in a foreign country, when we deny it to our own soldiers?

It is the code of a soldier to stand up against wrongful policies, and not back down in the face of adversity. As long as there were other Transgender soldiers suffering in silence, Sheri Swokowski would be fighting for them. You don’t leave your fellow soldiers behind.

Last June, Sheri wore an infantry uniform to the Pentagon Pride event, the first time any female legitimately wore crossed rifles. Two weeks later, she was one of four Trans members of SPART*A (Service Members, Partners, and Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All) to be in uniform at the White House reception celebrating Pride Month. Shortly after the White House event, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter directed a Work Group to study the effects of having Transgender service members serve openly.

The study by the RAND Corporation, concluded in January, found that admitting Transgender people into the Military Service would have minimal effect on the force. Secretary Carter indicted that he expected to make a decision in Spring, but as one might expect, there were some that resisted, asking for more time and more studies. The announcement was temporarily put off so that some of the more reasonable concerns be addressed.

Earlier this month, I asked Sheri if she was disappointed with the delaying tactics. “As one who worked in the Pentagon for 2.5 years, post transition, as a civilian, bringing initial results to the table seldom results in immediate approval,” she explained.  “Principals absorb the data, ask questions that may not be answered on the spot, and may issue additional guidance. While it’s taken more time than we would like to see, the significance of changing a policy and resolving medical, environmental, training, and readiness issues is time well spent.

Department of Defense (DOD) senior leaders have acknowledged the talent of Trans Service Members, and that is one aspect driving this policy change. Over the past two years, dozens of brave Transgender men and women who are currently serving have come out to their commands. They have done this at great risk to themselves and the jobs they love. They come from both officer and enlisted ranks and include physicians, aviators, supply personnel, and individuals working at the Pentagon; some are academy graduates.”

I could sense her pride and accomplishment when she added, “The decision has been made, the details worked out, and I believe an announcement lifting the ban is imminent, perhaps as soon as the week of June 26th.”

On the morning of June 30th, I received an email from Sheri alerting me that the Secretary would be holding a press conference within the hour. I turned on the news, and anxiously awaited Ash Carter’s announcement.

“I’m announcing today that we’re ending the ban on transgender Americans in the United States military,” he proclaimed. “Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.”

The battle was over; the war had been won. But like every good commander, Colonel Sheri Swokowski refused to take the credit. That belonged to the soldiers on the field.

“This has been a collaborative effort between DoD, medical experts, and advocacy groups like SPARTA and The Palm Center,” she wrote me, shortly after the announcement. “But it has only become reality because of the brave Trans men and women serving on Active Duty and in the Reserve Component who have pushed the issue by coming out to their commands over the past two years. They are the real heroes! The lifting of the ban means DoD has finally become an Equal Opportunity Employer. Now, and only now, no one is left behind.”