[With the ban] You’re going to have allies not working to the best of their ability because you just eliminated their friend, their confidant. One thing I can say about soldiers is that they stand up for each other.
During her four years in the U.S. Army, Specialist Taliyah Cassadine was deployed to Kosovo for a peacekeeping mission and to Kuwait at the start of the Iraq War. She endured the high-risk situations and harsh conditions that come with serving in a war zone.
Her most harrowing experience was in Iraq, when Cassadine’s unit was sent on what she called a “suicide mission” to guard an oil field. “To this day I don’t know how you can guard an oil field when a missile can take the whole field, and you, out,” she said.
Due to the danger, her sergeant advised his soldiers to write a “last letter”–a parting note that would be delivered to a loved one in the event of the writer’s death. “That was the hardest thing in life I had actually faced,” said Cassadine. “I’m just sitting here like, I’m really planning my funeral right now. And I haven’t even lived my life.”
Cassadine who served as a fire direction control soldier–one who plots targets on maps for missile drops–joined the military in part as a way to “straighten out.” She thought military culture would make her overcome the persistent feeling that she was female, and not the male she presented as.
Ironically, her deployment in Iraq made her certain that she needed to live as her authentic self.
Seeing the war-torn devastation in which others were living made Cassadine realize her own issues weren’t that bad. “I thought, what am I so afraid of about coming out of the closet and transitioning when these people can barely come out of their houses and walk down the street?”
At the time, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy prevented openly LGBT people from serving. But being transgender wasn’t incompatible with Cassadine’s military service.
Hiding her true self did have an impact, however. While in Iraq, Cassadine’s sergeant noticed something was amiss. He went out of his way to help her, and gained Cassadine’s trust in the process. She eventually came out as transgender to him.
The realization that there were LGBT allies within the military was profound. “I started to see the humanity in people,” said Cassadine. “And my beliefs that military people want to just make you tough or make you what they want you to be changed. They care about people.”
The sergeant supported her and Cassadine continued to confide in him. They are still in contact via social media.
After all she had seen and survived, Cassadine was determined to live authentically despite “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” She began transitioning in secret. But the policy also meant that she could not access appropriate health care related to her gender transition, so Cassadine sought alternative treatments that caused her serious health problems. In 2004, she had the option of taking a desk job and continuing to hide or receiving a medical retirement from the Army. Although she wanted and needed the stability of the service, she also needed to be free to be her true self.
“So I chose freedom,” said Cassadine.
Cassadine now lives in Atlanta, where she works putting wheel boots on the cars of parking scofflaws. She is also working with a nonprofit organization, Ubuntu Incorporated, whose mission is centered around improving the lives of trans and gender nonconforming individuals to develop programming and events for trans women, and created the ‘Say no 2 Silicone Injections” campaign to increase knowledge and advocate for healthy means of transitioning.
For Cassadine, the announcement in 2016 that the Obama administration would allow transgender troops was bittersweet. She lamented what could have been had she not retired.
“I definitely would have been somebody’s First Sergeant by now because I would have had the time. I think of all of the things that could have happened that would have made me more of an asset to my community.”
She is concerned that the transgender ban will affect troop morale and readiness, especially for the countless LGBT allies who became visible when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” was repealed.
“You’re going to have allies not working to the best of their ability because you just eliminated their friend, their confidant,” she said. “One thing I can say about soldiers is that they actually do stand up for each other. The beautiful part of ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is that you finally saw it.”