soldiers

In The Boots of a Liberal Soldier

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Alixis Russell

“There are victories of the soul & spirit. Sometimes even if you lose, you win.” Elie Wiesel

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Disclaimer: This article is in no way intended to represent the values and beliefs of the US Army as a whole, nor is it intended to represent the experiences, values, or beliefs of its Soldiers. It merely represents the experience of the Soldier writing it.

As a progressive individual in the Armed Forces, I am constantly grappling with what can be perceived as being complicit in a military industrial complex, and yet truly believing that individual Soldiers can affect that establishment as a whole in a positive way. This causes extreme dissonance, and, sometimes, doubt in me. Sometimes I’m counting down to 9/22/20 when I can get out and, so I tell myself, live more consistently with my ideologies. I am being honest. And, of course, there are times I hear about how the Army is making progress and that truly makes me proud to be serving at this time. I rarely, however, see that change in my day-to-day Soldiering. Recently, though, I was privileged enough to see it for myself.

I was asked to assist on a training for the new Army Directive of how to effectively allow transgender Soldiers to serve openly, safely, and in accordance with their needs. This training was delivered to the senior enlisted Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs) and Officers of three companies. No other Specialist in sight. I stayed up later than late, which in a field environment is really saying something as sleep is as precious as rounds, it seems. I studied and took notes on the Army’s literature and appreciated how useful my knowledge of the transgender experience turned out to be, silently thanking every book, article, and person that helped me even remotely understand it. I pondered how I would address this topic respectfully, thoroughly, and authentically to an audience I am required to submit to whilst not degrading the integrity of my beliefs.

Thankfully, I was being led by a tremendous Captain who would not let me fail. Nonetheless, I was admittedly nervous when the projector turned on and seats started filling up, including, to my surprise, by our Brigade Command Sergeant Major and full bird Colonel. I stood, introduced myself, and we began working through the slides. The Captain and I seemed to split the content and questions down the middle (I so appreciated being able to speak freely in front of so many superiors). We covered everything from basic terminology to genuinely difficult scenarios and how to respond to them appropriately according to the policy in a way that protects and respects ALL Soldiers. More importantly, we answered, and encouraged, questions. Tough questions. Questions asked by people who are genuinely uncomfortable by the changes being made in an Army they have served in for 10, 20, 30+ years. I maintain the notion that discomfort is where growth happens, and I am so thankful to have been in that room and experience some of that with leaders I (mostly) admire.

Are there folks I was a bit disappointed in? Yes. Were there questions with undertones of insensitivity? Yes. Were there whispers and “jokes” made inappropriately? Yes. Were there also, however, people who impressed me? People who gracefully navigated a topic they genuinely knew nothing about (zero hands raised when we asked who has ever heard the term “dysphoria”)? People who were courageous and gracious despite a room full of peers who could have judged them for speaking up? People who did what was right and acknowledged the nuance and depth of the issue, instead of dismissing it or laughing it off? People who let me, a measly E-4, challenge them and that accepted my answers even if they did not like them? Emphatically to all, yes.

I am learning. Learning that putting people in boxes will always, always stand in the way of dialogue and, subsequently, change. This has been THE hardest lesson of my life, as my track record shows, making fun of and tearing down Republicans used to be my favorite pastime.  I am being truthful. I am guilty. But in the same way some of the most tenured Soldiers out there can be open and receptive to a change many liberals thought we would never see within the largest military on the face of the planet, I can be open to the fact that not all boot-wearing, truck driving, gunslinging folks are out to obliterate progress.

As I told them, this will be hard. Expect that. Embrace it. And maybe for all of you, there isn’t any value in what I’ve just said, and that is more than okay. But for myself, this experience brought me more confidence in saying yes, I am in the Army and no, it is not beyond hope. I stand even more zealously by the belief that, in any context, individuals who believe in education and in their voice can shape the world we live in. For better or for worse.

I believe with every snowflake bone in my body that we will continue shaping it in the direction of a country where LGBTQIA+ folks can be empowered in our ranks, and where we find that no group or population is without the capacity to grow.