On the anniversary of the day President Harry Truman desegregated the military, President Donald Trump announced, via Twitter, that the United States military would no longer welcome or support the service of transgender American citizens. As a nation, we have been here before. For generations, the military marginalized minorities, forcing them to serve separately or even in secret, before it finally got it right. And even in those tumultuous times, they still served and did so with honor and dignity. My family’s history and its service in the military is a testament to this. We have watched, over three generations, as the military stamped out discrimination and internalized this lesson: Your race, class, gender or sexual orientation has nothing to do with your fitness to serve.
During my first deployment in Iraq, I was stationed at Al Asad airbase in Anbar Province in Iraq. Part of my unit’s mission was to maintain security along one of the main supply routes so that convoys, which mostly traveled under the cover of darkness at night, could safely operate. We worked well with local police and sheikhs, and for many months things remained generally quiet. Then we began finding bombs on the side of the road. We didn’t have a name for them then, but later the technical term of Improvised Explosive Device, or IED, would emerge, and our time in the desert would never be same. After my first tour, almost a full year in the Iraqi desert, my father wanted to discuss what my time was like there.
My dad, Bishop Sr., or “Big Bishop,” was a gregarious, funny, and charming man. He was drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam in the late 1960s, and was forced to leave early from, what was then, South Carolina State College. For his service in Vietnam, he received a Bronze Star as a young Specialist with the First Calvary Division. Given his abilities and performance, he was asked to remain in the Army and become an officer. My father respectfully declined. At that time, the Army was a very different place, and the U.S. was only a few years removed from the signing of the Civil Rights Act. He also wanted to get home to his family and marry his high school sweetheart, my mother, whom he’d left behind to go to Vietnam. He eventually would go on to serve as a veteran employment specialist with the state of South Carolina for the next 32 years, helping veterans transition to civilian jobs as they exited military service.
After I returned from Iraq, and was alone with my father, we began sharing stories we’d never told any of our family members about our military experiences. We discussed our fears, our concerns, and the issues we had to deal with as young men deployed to combat zones. There was one thing we both had learned during our time at war: Nothing was more important than the ability to trust the person fighting next to you. Given what was going on in the U.S. in the 1960s, my father told me it was hard for an enlisted black man from the Deep South to trust that the white men serving next to him had his best interests at heart, and that they would have his back. Our country was just beginning to recognize people of color as full-fledged citizens at the same time my father fought to protect its interests and the interests of its allies. As time progressed, he matured and his beliefs evolved thanks to his experience fighting and training with those same men he first met with suspicion. He learned they were no different from him. They all feared not making it home. They each had parents, wives, and high school sweethearts waiting for them. If you could zero your rifle, or drive a jeep, or work on a towable Howitzer fire team, or man the door gun on a Huey, no one had the time or the interest to worry about the rest. That focus and dedication led him to making lifelong friends, who still occasionally send me their condolences on his passing in 2012. Those same experiences taught him that at the end of the day, it was character and shared values that drives us as soldiers and Americans.
This week it was announced that the first woman in history has enlisted to become a Navy SEAL. In 2015, and again earlier this year, we had women successfully complete Ranger School. These are only a few of the latest examples of progress. In 2016, Eric Fanning became Army Secretary, making him the most senior gay military official in U.S. history. Senior officers are now able to serve openly and proudly following the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And it should also be noted that these service members have finally been able to recognize their families for their years of dedication and sacrifice as well.
Supporting military families and the service members they love is embedded in the very foundation of modern American society. We cannot retreat from well-earned social progress. Our values do not retrograde, but are instead fortified through a history of mistake, reflection, and correction. Trump’s announcement is heartless and poorly formulated policy that is not supported by facts. More to the point, it’s distinctly un-American. As my father demonstrated, the military is not a laboratory for social change, but instead the vanguard of principles that reflect the best our nation has to offer. It is built on providing opportunities for individual success. Why would we deny anyone capable of meeting the military’s standards for service the chance to take advantage of that opportunity?
Now, a man who never served in uniform will tell capable American citizens that their desire to serve the country is no good. It’s no longer welcomed, because of who they are.
We are not perfect, but we are better than this. Everyone deserves the right to serve with honor and dignity.
Image: U.S. Department of Defense