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Wisconsin veteran is highest-ranking 'out' transgender retired service member in country

Col. Sheri Swokowski
Posted at 10:17 AM, Mar 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 19:38:54-05

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Retired Colonel Sheri Swokowski comes from a military family, both her dad and brother also served. She said she came away from high school with the desire to serve others. She spent decades serving her country in the Wisconsin National Guard and as an Army Infantry Company Commander.

But during that time, she never got to serve as her authentic self.

"There's nothing like having a trans woman who's commander of an army infantry company compartmentalize her feelings and emotions," Swokowski said. "I was following and living the army values and that required me to put the welfare of my soldiers and their families, and of course the mission, ahead of my own."

She said she knew something was different about her from a young age, and it's a weight she carried with her during her service.

"I had periods, very infrequent periods, of living authentically when I would go out and purchase female clothing and wear them for short periods of time," she recalled.

She said those periods would last a few hours or maybe for a weekend. But, by the time Monday came she "would have to go back to putting on the uniform and not being authentic, the guilt would set in."

In 2004 she retired from the military. But soon after, she moved to D.C. to take on the role of lead instructor at the Army Force Management School.

In D.C. she found a transgender community and lived more as her authentic self than ever before.

In 2007 she came out and transitioned. She said she picked her name Sheri because it contains her new pronouns: she and her.

But in the midst of becoming her true self, she was met with discrimination from the military community when she returned to her instructor job.

"The day after I came back, came back as Sheri, the director, a retired 3-star, he welcomed me back and the second sentence out of his mouth was we've already hired your replacement," Swokowski said.

She said she wasn't entirely shocked that happened, but felt defeated nonetheless.

"As you can imagine I probably did a few things well as an army officer to earn promotion to the colonel level. So I had a pretty successful career I thought," she said. "There was nothing that changed about my skill set, my ability to do the job, the only thing that changes was really how I looked."

But she didn't let that discrimination set her back.

"It made me more determined basically to help others that were in similar positions. Here I was as a retired army officer, a senior officer, I had skillsets... I realized that if I could be fired for no reason at all other than changing how I looked and coming out as trans, then the other trans people that were out there that really needed help needed a spokesperson and they needed some to be visible for them as well."

She eventually moved on to the pentagon where she would become a senior analyst. She said that environment was more welcoming, but also wonders if the fact that her colleagues didn't see her transition had played a part in that.

"Unless someone took the time to look into my background, they didn't know that. So it was just accepting of me as a female and treating me like any other professional female," Swokowski said of her time at the Pentagon.

The ability for transgender service members to serve openly has flip-flopped frequently in the last eight years.

There was a ban on transgender people serving openly in the military until 2016 when the Obama Administration ended it. But in 2019, the Trump Administration reinstated the "Trans Ban." In 2021, shortly after the Biden Administration took over, the ban was reversed again and transgender service members can once again serve openly.

But Swokowski said some uncertainty remains.

"It's still a matter of concern because anytime the administration changes, we can go back, we can take another step backwards," she said.

She hopes to eventually see legislation at the federal level to protect transgender service members and make sure that anyone who meets the standards and is capable can serve their country.

"When transgender people are allowed to serve authentically and that weight is lifted off their shoulders, their individual readiness increases, and anytime individual readiness increases that in turn increases unit readiness," Swokowski said.

Since Swokowski retired, she's also been involved in advocacy.

"Personally I have had a hand in helping about 20 [service members] get surgery because even though that's the policy and they're eligible for full health care, there is still bias in the system," she said.

Swokowski didn't openly transition until later in life, but she said the last 15 to 20 years have been the happiest years of her life. Her hope is that more transgender individuals can have that feeling for many more years than she has.

"My hope for future transgender individuals, whether in the military or in the civilian field, is that individuals get to live the vast majority of their life authentically as opposed to some of us late bloomers."

From her service to living as her authentic self and her advocacy for others, Colonel Sheri Swokowski embodies courage.

"To me courage means having the convictions to move ahead even against the tide, even against the social aspects, the social stereotypes, and be a part of the change. Lead part of the change to make better for those that follow," Swokowski said.

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