This week the National LGBT Bar Association announced a historic decision by the United States Navy, which issued new military documents recognizing a transgender veteran’s legal name change and gender identity. The association also hailed similar victories for two veterans of the U.S. Army.
Lieutenant Paula M. Neira, a 1985 Naval Academy graduate who served in Operation Desert Storm, filed her case in March 2014 and received word in the mail on January 23 that her name change had been approved. She is the first Navy veteran to be issued new Department of Defense paperwork known as Form DD-214. This form is used by Navy veterans to prove they served, whenever they apply for work or for benefits and services available only to veterans.
Neira told Daily Kos the decision came as a pleasant surprise. “I was expecting a fight,” she said. Despite serving with distinction and being awarded more than 20 military decorations, Neira told Today Health she felt she had to leave the Navy because of her gender identity.
“I never wanted to leave and hoped to spend my entire life in the Navy,” she said. “I had to leave and be who I am. That decision was the hardest one I have ever made.”
Neira resigned her commission in 1991, and underwent gender confirmation surgery in 1995.
Her victory was announced by the bar association along with similar favorable decisions for Army 1st Sgt. Dayna Walker (retired) and Army Major Evan Young (retired). Those two cases follow victories earlier this year for Army veterans in New Jersey. The U.S. Air Force has also issued corrected paperwork based on a 2004 ruling by the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records, which oversees such requests.
Neira, now a nurse educator in Bowie, Md., learned the importance of the DD-214 document when a job offer was rescinded, after she revealed to a prospective employer what her military records would say about her.
“This is an important step for so many transgender veterans, and we are glad the Navy has made it,” said Brynn Tannehill, a former Navy pilot and Director of Advocacy for Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All (SPART*A).
Tannehill told The Advocate: “We hope that the Navy, and other branches, will now make it possible for other transgender veterans to easily and expeditiously change their names on their DD-214s. Having the correct name on this document is vital to employment and GI benefits."
Of the 22 million veterans of the armed forces, the Williams Institute, a UCLA Law School think tank, estimates 134,000 are transgender. But a spokesman for the Pentagon told Daily Kos these decisions do not reflect a change in official policy.
“At this time, there are no plans to change the DOD policy on the DD-214,” Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said in a statement.
In addition, the Pentagon’s deputy general counsel responded to a request by the LGBT Bar Association to distribute official policy guidance to the boards that govern the DD-214s, with a terse statement explaining why it was “unnecessary.”
Neira told Today Health, “Hopefully, it will become routine for any transgender vet to request a new DD-214. The broader implication is to recognize that transgender people can serve in the military. To make it difficult serves no other purpose than ignorance and bigotry.”
Her ultimate goal was to have the Navy recognize her true name and identity so she could have her ashes to be added to the Columbarium at Artlington National Cemetery, where both her parents are buried.
Because of this victory, Neira told Daily Kos, “when I die, I will finally get back to the Navy.”