Over the past decade, Sgt. Shane Ortega has served three combat tours: Two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. Two as a Marine and one in the Army. Two as a woman and one as a man.
Ortega is a helicopter crew chief in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. He was born female and would like to serve the rest of his career as a man. That would require a significant change in Pentagon rules, which require that transgender troops be discharged from military service, usually on medical grounds.
Last summer, medical tests showed Ortega had elevated testosterone levels due to the hormones he was taking to support his transition to being a man. As a result, he was barred from flight duties. He still faces the risk of being separated from the Army, but the intervention of an outside legal advocacy group has held that off, at least temporarily. He remains a woman in the eyes of the military, a status with emotional and practical costs.
He holds a man’s military travel passport, based on the new Social Security card he received when he changed his name. But he is still identified as female in the military’s official computer system. He must wear a woman’s “dress blues” for official occasions.
Looking for clarity, his commanders have formally asked the Army a simple question: Can Ortega serve openly as a man?
“Administratively I shouldn’t exist,” said Ortega, 28. “But I do exist, so that’s still the problem.”
An estimated 15,500 transgender people serve in the military, according to the Williams Institute, a legal think tank that studies sexual-orientation and gender-identity issues. The Pentagon will not disclose how many have been discharged. Palm Center Executive Director Aaron Belkin, whose group studies the issue, said that at least a dozen people have been discharged in the past six months because of their transgender identity.
Clarifying the military’s policy — and the contradictions in how it’s executed — poses a particular challenge for a president who has made the rights of transgender Americans a key component of his domestic social policy.
President Obama has expanded legal protections on the basis of gender identity, advocated for the rights of transgender prisoners, and just this week condemned conversion therapy for young people, a practice that purports to change the sexual identity of transgender and gay people.
On Thursday, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, posted a blog recounting how she met with transgender women of color last month “during the White House’s first-ever discussion solely focused on the challenges this community faces.”
In contrast to his vocal advocacy for gays to serve openly in the military, Obama has remained silent on the status of transgender service members. Transgender rights advocates view their acceptance as the next step in creating a more inclusive military.
Transgender troops have always been treated differently from their gay counterparts. Openly gay soldiers were blocked from service — or dismissed from the ranks — on the grounds they would undermine unit cohesion. Being transgender is classified as a mental disorder that makes someone unfit to serve.
Privately, some military officials argue that transgender soldiers could not serve in hardship posts, because they rely on hormone treatments. Transgender advocates point out that troops with other medication requirements, such as diabetics, are not automatically disqualified from service.
Rather than calling for a policy reversal, the White House — which declined to comment for this article — has turned to the services.
In August, the Pentagon asked each service to reassess its rules regarding transgender service members. All still have regulations labeling transgender troops unfit for service, even though some have signaled an openness to reviewing the policy.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said last year that she supports the idea of allowing Americans to serve regardless of their gender identity.
The Army recently placed decision-making authority over the future of transgender soldiers in the hands of a senior civilian appointee, Debra S. Wada, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and Reserve affairs.
That move was made after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition in September on behalf of Ortega and other transgender soldiers who faced separation proceedings.
“Although the Army appears to have temporarily halted the process of kicking trans people out, the policy still declares that they are unfit,” said Joshua Block, the ACLU staff attorney representing Ortega. “That puts service members and their commanders in an untenable situation. It’s the policy itself that’s interfering with the military’s ability to do the job, not service members like Shane.”
Senior civilian Pentagon officials have begun speaking publicly — if cautiously — about resolving the questions surrounding transgender service members.
But promoting another such change after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the advent of women in combat roles presents a number of political and public relations challenges for the administration.
During a February question-and-answer session with troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter suggested that being transgender alone should not disqualify someone from the military.
“I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them,” he said.
That same month, the Pentagon began what its spokesman Nate Christensen called “a routine, periodic review” of the Defense Department’s medical requirements, including the provision that being transgender makes one medically unfit for duty.
Miles away from the political debate, Ortega has spent months doing administrative tasks for his unit since his flight certification was suspended last summer.
But having been cleared by his brigade’s senior behavioral-health officer of gender dysphoria — a condition in which patients suffer distress from having a sharply different view of their gender than what others see and perceive — Ortega expects to be allowed to resume flying in mid-April following another physical. He will then be permitted to perform the full range of duties as a helicopter crew chief, though technically still designated as female.
Ortega’s transition — which included taking testosterone for four years under the supervision of military and civilian personnel — has not interfered with his ability to serve, he and his attorneys say. Ortega meets all the standards for a male soldier in his age category in terms of performing push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run.
Serving in eastern Afghanistan three years ago, Ortega operated easily as an assistant squad leader repairing aircraft for a Special Forces unit in a remote forward operating base. He regularly lifted weights with his team at the gym and socialized, as well.
“I don’t think there was any animosity,” he said.
Even early on in Ortega’s military career, gender identity was not a major factor in assignments. During an initial deployment as a member of a Marine military police unit in Fallujah, Iraq, he recalled, there were just three women out of 387 troops. Once the units split up, “I never even saw another female Marine,” he said.
“You really learn it really plays no role. Nobody’s going to carry my gear,” he added. “It’s pretty hard-core equal treatment in a combat zone.”
Both of Ortega’s parents were career military — his father served in the Navy, his mother served in the Navy and Army, and two of his uncles went to Vietnam. Ortega never considered any other career. He signed up for Marine boot camp while still in high school and said his family’s military tradition and a desire for adventure inspired the move.
“One thing my father always said was, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’ ” said Ortega, who buzzes with energy and spills out declarations at a rapid clip. “I definitely wanted to be that change.”
A diminutive 5-foot-6, Ortega weighs roughly 160 pounds and has a sculpted physique. Tattoos cover more than a third of his body and speak to a range of experiences, from the Hindu deities Ganesha and Shiva to a tank and woman sporting a gas mask.
He was born in Patuxent River, Md., when his mother was serving at the naval air station there. Ortega said he did not want to dwell on his past as a female and declined to provide the name he was given at birth. But he offered that, from early on, being female didn’t feel comfortable. “I’ve known since I was a child,” he said.
He left for Marine Corps boot camp in 2005, two days after graduating from Monacan High School outside Richmond.
For several years, Ortega has campaigned quietly to push for greater acceptance of transgender service members. He has spoken with elected officials, civilian groups and health professionals and has upcoming speaking engagements in cities including Philadelphia and Atlanta.
“It definitely clears up abstract concepts and preconceived stereotypes,” Ortega said of his talks, adding that while he has “really high walls to climb over when I get there,” many audience members are more understanding once they see and talk to him.
Ortega, who has gradually become more comfortable being in the public eye, has recently launched a Twitter account and was accepted into the Gay Men’s Chorus of Honolulu. He will start competing for a professional bodybuilding title in the fall.
But the Pentagon does not appear poised to clarify its policy soon. In an e-mail, Christensen wrote that the “current periodic review” of the Pentagon’s medical rules “is expected to take between 12-18 months; it is not a specific review of the Department’s transgender policy.”
For the past several years, Ortega has served between two genders.
He has lived in communal accommodations, thereby avoiding the problem of having to bunk with women rather than men. While he is usually addressed as male, occasionally others refer to him by his original gender identity when he has to wear a woman’s uniform.
“I have not asked for any special accommodations from my chain of command,” Ortega said, adding that it has led to some “socially awkward” situations. “You have to exercise patience with people, but people are not going to understand the subject overnight.”