With more than 30 years' service in the infantry and as a drill sergeant, this United States Army sergeant major gathered intelligence behind enemy lines and saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
But people who knew the sergeant major then might not recognize the soldier from active duty. That's because about five years ago, the now retired sergeant started a new life as a woman.
"I've lost a lot of friends," said the Army veteran, who is now known as Jennifer. "It's hard for people."
But one of the hardest parts of Jennifer's transition, she said, is proving one of her proudest accomplishments -- her military service -- to potential employers, banks and medical staff.
Jennifer's military record still refers to her by a different name. The Defense Department policy is not to change a person's official military service form, or DD-214, a department spokesman confirmed.
Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the DOD, said in a statement that his agency won’t change a name on the original DD-214 form, “based on the Service's interest in maintaining the accuracy of its historical records.” But he said they will place a letter or certificate in the applicant's official service record, verifying a name or gender change.
"The Department of Defense continues to explore avenues to provide the Service member with privacy while balancing the need for accurate historical information," Christensen added.
The veterans and the ACLU of New Jersey, which is representing Jennifer and one other transgender veteran in their efforts to change their records, say that's not good enough. To have their military service acknowledged, the veterans have to explain to every doctor, banker or potential employer that they changed genders -- a situation that can be uncomfortable, and open them up to discrimination.
"Our clients are in the unfortunate position of having a DD-214 that doesn’t match who they are currently," said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director for the ACLU of New Jersey. "And because of that, when they show their papers, they have to really out themselves. They might be outright denied benefits or services, and we think that’s just not fair.”
“I just want a document changed. That’s all," said Nicholas, the second transgender veteran being represented by the ACLU of New Jersey.
Nicholas says he should be eligible for medical benefits through the Veterans Administration, but feels he would be rejected because his current identity does not match his papers. He said exposing himself to that argument with medical administrators at every appointment is more than he can bear.
Jennifer says there must be a compromise: Keep the old record for historical purposes but seal it, and give her a new document to use in public life -- something like that. After all, birth certificates and other official documents can be amended, she says.
"We’re here. We’re good citizens. We’ve served. I’ve served with honor," she said. "I’m just asking for my name to be changed. I’m not going to rewrite history."