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Becoming Patricia: A combat veteran's story of transgender life in the Army

June 13, 2015 Updated: June 16, 2015 at 11:10 am
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photo - Staff Sgt. Patricia King became the U.S. Army's first transgender infantryman this year when she came out to her commanders. King, pictured outside Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, has been serving in the Army for 16 years.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Staff Sgt. Patricia King became the U.S. Army's first transgender infantryman this year when she came out to her commanders. King, pictured outside Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, has been serving in the Army for 16 years. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Staff Sgt. King works in the headquarters of Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division.

A three-tour veteran of Afghanistan combat, King is fighting a different battle now. 

She's becoming the person she's felt destined to be since the age of 13.

"I'm the first openly transgender infantryman in the Army," King said.

The Army has accepted lesbians and gays into the ranks since 2011, but transgender life is a violation of regulations - a fireable offense.

"These conditions render an individual administratively unfit rather than unfit because of physical illness or medical disability," Army regulations say.

But this year, the Army is changing, slowly, on the issue of transgender service. So is Patricia.

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"As I grew up I dealt with my feelings quietly." - from Patricia King's blog.

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Patricia King joined the Army in 1999, fresh out of high school and trained to be a ground-pounding infantryman.

"I wanted to join the Army to get some perspective on myself," she explained. "I wanted to shake off these feelings I had and become a man."

Becoming a man was tougher on King than it was for others. Most boys revel in shaving the first whiskers of their teenage years.

"I looked in the mirror and felt disappointment," King said.

King started her Army career as a paratrooper.

"I've fallen out of 34 airplanes and helicopters," she said.

Jumping out of a plane, and coming out to your family and commanders have a lot in common, King said.

"They felt pretty much the same," she said.

The 34-year-old whose birth name was Peter said she was motivated to publicly embrace female gender by the December suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Ohio.

Alcorn left a note on a social media website: "Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman, or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself."

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"It's not always easy. Sometimes I have challenges, but it's always worth it. These things make me a stronger person." - from Patricia King's blog.

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Experts say society is just beginning to understand transgender people.

It was long considered a mental illness, but has come to be viewed as a treatable medical condition, the American Medical Association says.

Transgender advocate Fiona Dawson said people have a hard time understanding the difference between anatomical gender and the gender people embrace mentally.

"Gender is between your ears, not between your legs," said Dawson, who works with SPARTA, which provides support to transgender troops.

The modern medical understanding of gender doesn't mean transgender people such as King are embraced, though.

The military has worked to stop discrimination against transgender civilian employees, while maintaining that transgender troops should be discharged.

"I think for many trans, no matter where they work, there is a worry that coming out publicly, they could be fired," said Laura Reinsch, a spokeswoman for One Colorado, an advocacy group for sexual orientation and transgender issues.

King battled her gender identity for years before deciding to openly embrace womanhood on Jan. 3. She worried that no one would accept the decision.

"You have to be conceivably ready to lose everyone you ever loved," King said. "I had to be sure this is what I wanted, because I could lose everyone. It wasn't the case, but it is that drastic of a life change."

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"Being transgender doesn't make me a pervert. It doesn't make me a fetishist. It doesn't make me a bad person, a bad soldier, a bad parent, or a bad Christian." - from Patricia King's blog.

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King earned the Combat Infantryman Badge in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2002. Her 10th Mountain Division unit arrived in Afghanistan three months after the 9/11 attacks and was assigned to clearing out pockets of Al Qaida and Taliban resistance.

She earned the Bronze Star Medal in 2014 while serving with Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division in Afghanistan at the end of combat operations there.

She says wartime service gave her a passion for leadership.

"I love being in the Army," she said.

The Army, though, officially forbids transgender service. Army Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Ben Garrett said the "policy on transgender individuals serving in the military hasn't changed."

But in February, the Army made it far more difficult for units to discharge transgender troops, in a move that was later echoed by the Air Force.

Kicking a transgender soldier out now requires the signature of the undersecretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs.

Ashley Broadway with the American Military Partner Association, an advocacy group for sexual orientation and gender identity issues in military families, said the recent step is similar to what the military did ahead of the repeal of its ban on gay and lesbian troops.

"We're hearing more and more that it is almost the same," she said.

The move on discharges gave King the confidence to tell her commanders about her changes.

"You can't be the best leader unless you can be genuine," King said.

King was ready for the worst when she told her commander and comrades on March 9. She got the best.

"I have been met with nothing but the warmest support and that includes in my Army," King said.

Fort Carson referred questions about King to the Pentagon.

Still, King must be careful to balance her new life and military rules.

"In uniform, I do not express my femininity," she said.

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"I am Staff Sergeant, not Trish. We wear a unisex uniform and cosmetics are scarcely allowed for any woman," - from Patricia King's blog.

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King in recent weeks has begun therapy for gender transition. It includes counseling, doses of female hormones and laser treatments to remove facial hair.

The hormones, King said, changed everything.

"I did find myself feeling normal in a way I never felt before," she said.

King has a lot to learn. Girls learn to put on makeup at a young age. They experiment with hair and fashion along the path to womanhood.

King picked up makeup skills at a class at an area mall. She gets hairstyling tips on YouTube and trades fashion ideas on a chat site for transgender people in transition.

She doesn't know how far she'll go to become a woman. King is paying out-of-pocket for the therapy. The Army has no provision for it in its ample Medical Corps.

Every step in transition therapy presents a new set of decisions. Many transgender people decide against sex-change surgery.

"Everybody's roadmap is different, it's about becoming comfortable with who you are," King said.

One major step in her transition has been accomplished.

Legally, King became Patricia this year.

The Army accepted her new name, if not her new identity.

Her military records and identification were quickly changed.

"When I saw my new email address I was ecstatic," King said. "It was the fastest process you have ever seen. I was done in half a day."

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"This letter isn't about you. This letter is about me. My name is Patricia King and I am a transgender woman." - from Patricia King's blog.

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King can change her name, but she can't change her past.

She's a father, a soldier, a Christian.

She says acknowledging her gender embraces that history. For King it's not a change.

Those around King, though, sometimes struggle to understand.

Her parents, she said, have accepted her gender. But there was sadness.

"My mom has told me her process has been two steps forward and one step back," King said. "The parent mourns the identity of the child they always knew."

King's comrades and two young children stumble with unfamiliar pronouns in conversation.

"Sometimes people don't understand and there are questions that get asked," King said.

By going through the tumult of the transition, she hopes to give others the courage to embrace their identity.

"Somewhere out there, there is a soldier, sailor or airman who is dealing with this on their own, and I want them to know they are not alone," King said.

The hardest part of King's journey may have been balancing her gender with her beliefs. A church-going Christian, King worried that her internal conflict with manhood was also a conflict with God.

In faith, though, she found shelter. At Vista Grande Community Church, she's welcomed as a woman.

"It's wonderful," she said.

King said she's teaching Sunday school.

She's also realizing that changing gender doesn't change everything.

"When I changed my name, I didn't forget how to change the alternator in a car," King said. "When I changed my name, I didn't forget infantry tactics."

She has no desire to change the past, despite the memories of the war of gender she battled.

"Look at the life I have lived - I had the opportunity to be a parent, to go to Italy and Afghanistan," King said. "I love the life I lived."

"And the story I have to tell."

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter @xroederx

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