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A Transgender Service Member On Trump's Ban

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We're going to turn now to a major policy reversal that was revealed by a series of tweets by President Trump last week that took even his own military leaders by surprise. President Trump appears to be endorsing a new ban on transgender troops. A bit of history - last year, the Obama administration made a historic decision to officially allow transgender troops, including for combat, and even pay for medical treatment plans. Now it's unclear what will happen.

The Pentagon's top U.S. general, General Joseph Dunford said for now, there will be no changes without further guidance from the secretary of defense. But that's of little comfort to those active military who are transgender, including Army Drill Sergeant Ken Ochoa. Sergeant Ochoa came out as transgender two years ago and wears the male regulation dress uniform. NPR first spoke with him last year. Sergeant Ochoa, welcome back.

KEN OCHOA: Hi. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where were you when you first heard the news about the president's tweets this past Wednesday? And what was your first reaction?

OCHOA: I was actually getting ready to attend a graduation ceremony for a leadership course that I had been attending in Arizona. At the time, I felt my stomach drop, but I literally had 10 minutes to be out the door to where I needed to go. So I had to compartmentalize everything that I should have felt in that immediate moment and just - I made the choice to try to deal with it later.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Trump administration says costs because of the medical treatments, unit cohesion are the reasons for this potential policy shift. Now that you've had time to think about the new policy, possibly, what do you - what is your reaction?

OCHOA: To be honest, I'm just going to continue to do my job as I would any other day to the best of my ability until I am ordered to not put my boots on anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am interested in how the last year has gone for you. We spoke to you when the Obama administration made its announcement. How has the past year gone?

OCHOA: I'll say that I, you know, put my boots on just like everybody else in the morning. But over the last year, I've been a little bit more excited about doing it. Not to say that I ever regretted ever being in the military - I have always been very proud of what I do. But I put my boots on every morning now with an increased sense of urgency because I don't feel like I have to hide anything.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is it like to have to hide something?

OCHOA: It was just exhausting. I can't really articulate it any more, I guess, simply than that. To have to pretend to be two different people - and one of which is not who you are at all - I was putting a lot of energy into maintaining that so I wouldn't, I guess, be found out or whatever.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When they discuss unit cohesion - you're a sergeant - can you explain to me what it is that means and what your response to that particular issue is?

OCHOA: Sure. For me, unit cohesion implies that everybody is always all in, all on the same team, always putting the mission first. Regardless of my identity, whether I was pre-transition or post-transition, I have always done that. I've always put the mission first and myself second. You always get to know the people that are always on your team. And before I transitioned, I had a very hard time with that because I had to pretend to be somebody else. Post-transition, now that I am able to be myself, I don't have to hide and use that extra energy to be somebody else anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People who support having transgender people in the military say that the military is actually the biggest employer of transgender people in the United States. Is there a large community within the military? And how do you think that this could affect them?

OCHOA: I guess large is a relative term. I guess I'll put it this way. I know many more people who are trans that are in the military versus those who are transgender and not in the military.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And have you reached out to each other?

OCHOA: We have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what are they saying?

OCHOA: Mostly just offering support - everything will be fine; just continue to operate as normal. And that's pretty much just been the gist and the basics of what we've conveyed to each other.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Army Drill Sergeant Ken Ochoa based out of South Carolina. Thank you so much for joining us today.

OCHOA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.