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Angela Brightfeather
Drill Sergeant

by Denny Meyer

Angela Brightfeather is a sixty three year old woman of Transgender experience who was a US Army Combat Training unit Drill Sergeant for seven years during the Vietnam War; finishing her service as a Sergeant First Class, Field First - leading all the platoon drill sergeants in her company.  To be absolutely clear, although she was self-aware as transgender woman, she served her honorable and highly respected Army career as a biological male.  Following her service, she partnered as Senior Vice President  and has led a successful industrial contracting company in the rural south for many decades.  She raised two children and is a loving grandparent of seven grandchildren.  You might logically think that the life she has led is one of profound contradictions, but you would be mistaken in your assumptions if you did.

Just as Angela led and trained troops to survive combat in Vietnam, today there are American transgender soldiers fighting for freedom and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq.  They do not go into combat wearing high heels and show-girl sequined dresses; they wear combat gear like everyone else.  Like their gay and lesbian counterparts in our armed forces, they are indistinguishable from any other soldier both in appearance and in their ability to load and fire a .50 caliber machine gun, ride atop a Humvee in the gunner's position or lead patrols on constant alert for IEDs.  They are indistinguishable from any other soldier in their readiness to sacrifice their limbs and lives for their fellow soldiers and duty.

Now, you might logically think, "well, alright, the only reason that works out is because they are indistinguishable, that is -because no one knows; if fellow soldiers knew who they were, it would be impossible to carry on," but you would be mistaken in your assumptions if you did. In 1948, when President Truman integrated black Americans into our armed forces, people protested that Southern white boys, and most others, would never be able to serve alongside nor take orders from black soldiers.  And yet, today and for all the preceding six decades our American armed forces have been a light unto the world for that very reason: our integrated units of white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, male and female, gay, transgender, and straight Americans arrive in foreign lands to protect freedom and by their presence are an inspiration.  Sixty years ago, shortly after the close of WWII, an ordinary person would think you were quite insane if you told them that our armed forces would have been commanded by a General Colin Powell, a black American, during the 1980s, and that our troops in Iraq in the early years of that war would be led by General Shinseki, a Japanese American who now leads our Veterans Administration.  "A Negro and a Jap!" They would exclaim in disbelief, "wadayah wadayah nuts or sumthin?"  Yet today, the American cinematic image of a confident tough black Top Sergeant barking at his troops is iconic and no longer ironic; its a common reality.  General Shinseki's Asian American ancestry is not on the mind of most Americans at all, least of all the troops he led and the veterans who look to him to see to it that they get the benefits they earned by serving our nation just as he did for 38 years.

So, could a known transgender drill sergeant, today, get the respect to train combat troops?  Just as Angela did 40 years ago, a sergeant appearing in a uniform you could bounce a quarter off demonstrating the obstacle course, running 25 miles with an 80 pound pack, and sharp shooting without getting a speck of dirt on that uniform, will get the respect of troops, regardless of skin color, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.  Young American men and women, today, who choose to volunteer to serve their country do not care at all about the personal background of their sergeant, any more than they expect the sergeant to be concerned about their race, religion, private sexual life, or any of their other personal issues.  Both our sergeants, the backbone of the Army, and their brave troops expect their excellence and the rank they have earned to be all that matters.

Hang on, we're not done yet.  There remains the question of why the hell a young Transgender American, such as Angela, would want to volunteer, as she did, to be a crack drill sergeant in the middle of a bloody war, instead of happily transitioning immediately to legal womanhood and a totally different future for herself?  Well, not every ordinary American wants to be a soldier either; there are easier things to do with your young life, after all.  Yet, there are and have always been young Americans who want to do something meaningful and have no fear of hardship, who want to be a part of the foundation of our freedom; and throughout our history being black or white, or Asian, or gay, straight or transgender has not hindered them in their courageous pursuit to help defend the freedoms they value, even if they are limited by their being a minority.  Perhaps having that perspective makes it even more important for them than to others, who may take those freedoms for granted at such times in their lives.  This author was a little 5'4" 110 lb Jewish homosexual, yet I served for ten years and was a Sergeant First Class, go figure.  And I'd do it again because I'm proud as hell to have served my country, just as Angela told me that she is.  Our blood is as red when spilled on the battlefield as any other American's.

Here is Angela Brightfeather's story, at long last.

Angela was born in London, England at the close of WWII.  Her father was a US Army Corps Corporal, Tail Gunner, and Armorer who met her mother at a USO dance.  Her mother worked for the wartime British War Ministry located three stories beneath the Parliament building.  Prime Minister Churchill often visited her workspace to view the map table upon which the locations of the British Naval Fleet was displayed.  (Her father ruefully recalled that he'd been a sergeant, but was busted for going AWOL to visit his lovely fiancé).  Ahh, those were the days!

After a proper Roman Catholic wedding within hearing distance of London's Cockney Bow Bells, the family moved to Alexandria Bay NY on the St. Lawrence River in the heart of the Thousand Islands.  Her father was a hunting and fishing guide; which may begin to explain the tomboy trans-girl his young son was evolving into (just try not to get confused; take one breath at a time; its really not as complicated as it seems).  Angela claims that she first felt fulfilled as a female at the age of two months when wearing a Baptismal dress while being Christened.  (Ahh, the endless wonders of Catholicism).  School, for the young lad who was Angela, was a terrible experience.  She wanted to be a girl, after all, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s this was not something that a boy was allowed to do; so she was a rather rebellious youngster growing up in Syracuse NY, where the family later settled down to endure the 1950s.

So, why on Earth did young Angela volunteer to join the US Army in 1968 at the height of the War in Vietnam?  After all, she had enough to deal with already, one would think.  "What were you thinking," I asked.  Aside from everything else, like many Americans she was anti-war and was most unenthusiastic about getting into harms way in 'Nam.  And yet, there was a strong sense of personal responsibility; she could not simply allow herself to avoid hardship while her fellow young Americans were literally biting the bullet; It just wasn't right, to her thinking.  Despite everything, it seems, her parent's rearing and stoic wartime background had instilled in her a proud and patriotic morality.  Like many youngsters reared in the primeval forests of Western New York with hunting rifles and cold fish, she knew a thing or two about survival.  She signed up to become a Drill Sergeant in order to be able to provide her fellow soldiers the best survival skills possible in their training for combat.  It would mean wearing uniforms and combat gear, and not being able to express herself as a feminine person. But each of us who have served, in our own way, were genuinely willing to sacrifice something that is important to us individually, for God and country.

Despite a pending college draft deferment, Angela raised her right hand and made a commitment in time of war.  She had no fear of physical exertion, she was an athlete and had a childhood of rugged outdoor adventures at her father's side in the hinterlands.  Like any mother, her mother was not amused; but her father, a former soldier, was pleased and proud.

Angela excelled in Advanced Military Leadership School and was soon a sergeant rising at 3 AM to get spit shined and awaken her troops at 4 by banging trash cans and announcing reveille in the traditional manner that everyone who ever survived boot camp would like to forget.

For Angela, her official mission was also her personal mission in serving as a Drill Instructor.

"When I saw people come back from 'Nam," she said,  "and they knew they would have to go back, some of those men cried - knowing their luck may have run out, that they would not again come back.  But they had to go.  When you talk to them and see busses coming loaded with wounded soldiers and bloody sheets being unloaded at a military hospital stateside, you know it's not a game, this is life and death, and if you don't teach them to function as a unit, it costs lives; it puts them in jeopardy.  It was too important to turn away from that reality, despite my feelings about war.  They needed the skills to survive; It was my job to give them those skills.  That was what was most important in my life in those years."  For that reason, she reenlisted twice, to continue her task, finding that she could not turn away from training troops to survive as long as the war went on.

She cited the example of the famed Sgt. York, who had been a conscientious objector and yet had fought valiantly in bloody combat.  York's Colonel had asked him how, as a conscientious objector, he had so heroically battled.  "They were shooting my friends, people were dying; if I didn't fight, more would die; I did it to save lives," York had said.  

"So, in that spirit, you became a patriot?" I asked.

"I took pride in being the best drill sergeant I could be;" she said, "I was proud of my hat and badge, I took pride in the way my troops were trained because when they left my company they had a better chance of coming back alive.  As for being a patriot; the patriots were the ones who died despite all we did; the true patriots were the ones who died or performed heroic acts under fire. There is a wall in DC that holds their names on it"

"When the war ended," she told me, "I saw the television images of the last people being taken off the roof of the Hotel Saigon by helicopter.  It was over at last, my troops would no longer be in danger; and that was the day I resigned, ending my military career.  My mission was done; I could go on with my life."

"What does it mean to you now to be a veteran, all these years later?" I asked.

"As co-founder and Vice President of TAVA (Transgender American Veterans Association) I'm able to fulfill the mission I left after the last American service member left Vietnam.  That is, being a part of something bigger than myself by preserving and encouraging pride in service." she said. "We claim our pride in service, in having put in our time defending our country.  Being a veteran is unique, and being a transgender veteran is being one of the few who have had the privilege of dismantling the dismissive stereotypes that Transgender Americans have any less love for their country than others. There are transgender veterans who served as officers, drill sergeants, flew planes, and lived through the dangers of war and came out successfully.  Our recent TAVA survey of veterans demonstrated that 95 percent of transgender veterans have honorable discharges.  There is the proof for everyone to see.  They Did their Duty, and that is so important. The moment  you hold up an honorable discharge, the cynicism and stereotyping has to stop, because it proves that you served with respect and honor and everyone who served, or who did not serve, knows that.

©  2009  The Gay Military Times