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After 36 years and a troubled life, transgender veteran finally wins honorable discharge

Kelly Katherine Roser couldn’t shake the shame, self-loathing and persistent thoughts of suicide.

It was the fall of 1983 — a full decade before the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and nearly 30 years before she would transition to a transgender woman — and Roser was at war within herself. As a recently promoted Air Force staff sergeant, she struggled with proudly wearing the stripes of her new rank and living in her own skin.

One afternoon, at the height of her internal battle while awaiting a less-than-honorable discharge, Roser entered a parts room at Edwards Air Force Base. There, she slung a long, heavy electrical cord over an exposed beam and fashioned it into a noose around her neck.

When Roser regained consciousness on the floor, the cord was still tightly wound around her throat. “I thought to myself when I awoke that maybe I didn’t really want to die,” she recalled.

For the 59-year-old Valley Village resident, the failed suicide was just another tragic event in a troubled life marred by mental illness, hospitalizations in psychiatric wards, homelessness, unemployment and drug use.

However, there has been at least one bright spot.

In August, the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records upgraded Roser’s 1984 discharge from general to honorable.

Why a general discharge?

A general discharge under honorable conditions means a service member served satisfactorily but did not merit the highest level of discharge because of minor misconduct or failure to meet certain standards. Those with a general discharge do, however, qualify for Veterans Affairs health care, disability compensation, a pension, home loans and most all other veterans benefits.

Roser’s attorneys say an otherwise exemplary military career was upended by a one-time positive drug test for marijuana that prompted the general discharge. But her drug use, they argued, was brought on by gender dysphoria, which is the distress someone feels when there is a conflict between his or her gender identity and their gender assigned at birth.

The upgrade to Roser’s discharge is significant, said Paula Clamurro, a senior attorney for the Public Counsel’s Center for Veterans’ Advancement based in Los Angeles, which assisted in the discharge appeal.

“We as a society still have a long way to go to recognize the harm caused when the military, or any institution, excludes or retaliates against people for their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Clamurro said. “For this case, the military can no longer degrade a person for their devotion and desire to serve this country.  She finally received the full honors she earned.”

The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment.

Roser, who transitioned to a woman in 2012, has long been ashamed of the general discharge and is pleased it has been changed.

“Soldiers don’t fight for the flag or the Constitution — they fight for other soldiers. When you let them down, it is the worst feeling in the world,” she said. “Even with an honorable discharge, I may have failed at life but I am worthy to stand in their ranks.”

Kelly Roser outside her Valley Village home, Friday, October 23, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Destined to serve

Roser, who was born at a military hospital in Massachusetts, was named by her dad, a decorated pilot during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, after Kelly Field at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

A self-described military brat, Roser, along with her two sisters, bounced between military installations in Oregon, Washington, Maine, Arizona, California and England.

“The Air Force was burned into my DNA,” she said. “I was born on the flight line.”

Roser’s first brush with emotional trauma came at age 5, when her mother died unexpectedly and her father remarried a woman who was abusive.

Making matters worse, Roser’s dad was haunted by his own demons, suffering from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder likely stemming from his 23-year military career. Roser, who felt terrorized at times, described her father as racist, homophobic and paranoid, prompting him to sleep with a loaded pistol under his pillow. “It was no fun having to wake up with my father when he might have a pistol in his hand,” she added.

Roser said she realized at 13 she no longer wanted to be male. “It was a time of puberty, high school dances and parties,” she said. “I was struggling with my gender and sexuality. It was all kinds of confusing. I didn’t have the (male) wiring on the inside.”

Still, she was afraid to confide what she was feeling in her father.

“There was never a point that I ever told him because I couldn’t articulate it,” Roser said. “He wanted to know what I was going to do after high school graduation and whether I was going to college. I wanted to scream that I was a woman. But the only answer I had was that I wanted to join the Air Force to make me a man. That didn’t quite turn out as expected.”

So Roser joined her high school’s ROTC unit and soldiered on toward a military career as her father, grandfather and great-grandfather had done. In 1977, not long after graduation, she enlisted in the Air Force.

“I was looking for people to belong with. The actual feeling of marching with hundreds of other people is indescribable,” Roser said. “You are part of the military service and the service looks out for you as long as you remain true. I still felt wrong inside and wondered if I could change it. It was the start of my dichotomy.”

A model soldier

Roser soared through basic training at Lackland, graduating at the top of her recruitment class and earning a reputation as a “fast burner,” Air Force parlance for a service member who advances quickly through the ranks.

Following basic training, she attended various Air Force schools in Mississippi and Okinawa, Japan, where she received training in cryptography to protect information in computer systems and avionics aboard fighter jets.

Roser also flirted with the idea of attending the Air Force Academy and becoming an officer.

Maj. Arthur E. Blackstone III., who was Roser’s commanding officer, gave her high praise in a recommendation letter that accompanied her application to the academy.

Blackstone described Roser as an outstanding airman, a student leader and an honor graduate at avionics school with “high moral character, a strong will to succeed and a willingness to seek out added responsibilities.”

Roser ultimately was denied entry to the Air Force Academy due to poor eyesight, but wasn’t deterred. She reenlisted in 1982 and was soon promoted to staff sergeant after achieving a high score on a written test.

Emotional problems surface

However, Roser was ill-equipped to handle the increased duties that accompanied her rank. She was belittled by service members of lower rank and disrespected by peers, according to a brief filed by attorneys with the Los Angeles law firm of Winston & Strawn in support of her discharge upgrade

Even more problematic, Roser became prone to emotional outbursts.

In May 1983, Roser, believing she had to cover several jobs at once, began yelling and throwing things while working in a radio shop at Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County.

“She grabbed a wooden file cabinet on the dispatch desk and threw that down on the floor,” the legal brief says. “She grabbed the chair that was at the dispatch board and physically threw it and turned it upside down and broke the arm off of it.”

Roser received mental health counseling and her behavior seemed to improve. But a couple of days later she erupted again after ripping her pants while riding in an Air Force vehicle.

“She got upset again, started throwing her headsets around the truck, kicking the walls of the truck, and the guy that was driving the truck got scared and brought her right back” to her office on base, according to the brief. “When Staff Sergeant Roser got back, she said that she was an idiot.”

Another incident occurred three days later following a minor altercation with another airman. Roser became extremely upset and ripped the sergeant stripes off the arm of her uniform. She said her outbursts were met with “confusion and laughter” by fellow airmen.

Testimony from her discharge proceedings reflected the severity of Roser’s mental health struggles at the time, with Air Force personnel saying Roser would claim she didn’t deserve to be a non-commissioned officer, couldn’t handle any pressure and was “lower than dirt.”

In 1983, Roser’s commanding officer requested that she undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which determined there was no evidence of emotional illness or a mental health disorder.

A missed diagnosis

A report from the Air Force military records correction board states that while gender dysphoria, previously referred to as gender identity disorder, was known during Roser’s time in the military, it was not commonly diagnosed.

Although it’s plausible Roser identified with being a female but functioned as a male, there is no evidence in her service records that she openly disclosed or accepted that aspect of herself, the board found.

“It is not uncommon for individuals with gender dysphoria to take some time to be open and to come to this acceptance or realization about themselves,” the report says. “However, we are also reminded the applicant was not living, working or functioning in an environment that was supportive of her newly identified gender at the snapshot in time.”

Under current Department of Defense policy, individuals who have undergone either hormone therapy or sexreassignment surgery for gender dysphoria are disqualified from military service, said Clamurro, one of Roser’s attorneys.

There are about 1,600 transgender troops in the U.S. who serve openly and thousands more in the shadows, according to SPARTA, an LGBTQ military advocacy group.

“I am consistently impressed by the quality and caliber of our members, who prove time and time again they not only belong, but lead from the front and succeed,” SPARTA President Emma Shinn, who serves as an active duty captain and judge advocate in the Marine Corps, said in a statement.

Roser was unable to reach her full potential because the Air Force entirely missed uncovering the reason for her deteriorating mental state, her attorneys say.

“It is no surprise that Ms. Roser’s mental health problems continued until they reached a breaking point,” they said in their legal brief. “This happened time and time again, and the end result was always the same.”

To cope, Roser self-medicated with alcohol and, in her private quarters on base, cross-dressed and smoked marijuana.

“When I got my general discharge my life was over,” said Roser, who has vivid nightmares virtually every night and takes a variety of medications for bipolar depression and PTSD. “I wish I could have had a military career but, if I couldn’t have been a female, it would have been destructive.”

Life today

Since leaving the Air Force, Roser has had more than two dozen jobs with various computer repair companies and an aerospace firm, but each time she was fired for emotional outbursts.

“The pressure would mount and multiplied in my mind and I couldn’t do things,” she said. “Employers don’t like it when you are on the ground crying and beating your head against the wall.”

There also have been three more suicide attempts.

Roser, who rents a room from a friend, is looking for part-time work and dreams of moving to a rural area, possibly with her 65-year-old sister, who is also a transgender woman.

“I have torn myself apart for 40 years trying to be something that I wasn’t,” she said. “I’m just trying to find a place that’s calm.”

Source: Orange County Register

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