Remembering Jess Shipps

Remembering Jess Shipps

Friends and family gathered Monday to remember Jess Shipps, a 31-year-old Air Force veteran and transgender woman who was an active member of SPARTA, an advocacy and support group for LGBT members of the military. 

A memorial for the Air Force veteran and former staff sergeant was held at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Hampton, Va. 

News of Shipp's death by suicide last month rocked the military community, particularly among veterans who not only knew Shipps but appreciated her candor and resolve to fight for open military service for transgender Americans. 

In an Army Times article published Monday, staff writer Jeff Schogol recognized Shipps for the woman she was, despite ongoing military policy that declares transgender Americans categorically unfit to serve. The Army Times summarized her 11-year military career thusly:

"During her career as a public affairs officer, she was stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. She was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medals three times and also received the Joint Service Commendation Medal."

As friends and family come to terms with the death of the funny, caring woman those close to her knew as Jessie, The Advocate has offered space to those mourning to remember their friend. Read on to learn more about Shipps, from the folks who knew her best. 

Landon Marchant, a U.S. Navy veteran and member of SPARTA, shared the following reflections on the memorial:

On Monday, June 29, in Hampton, Va., eight members of SPARTA stood alongside countless friends and family of Staff Sergeant Jess Shipps to pay our respects. A family friend read excerpts from her favorite childhood books, and Reverend Phyllis spoke of selfless service. Selfless service to her country, to her family, and to the friends she held close. It was a soulful sermon, written to comfort and honor in a time of heartbreak. 

Everything — the service, communion, hymns — felt surreal, until Langley Honor Guard Airmen presented a folded flag to Leanna, Jess’s wife. In that moment reality came crashing down. As the final salute fell, I felt what was left of my military bearing shatter. We had truly lost one of the best and brightest women I have ever known, and Jess wasn’t going to be walking through the door to shout, "Gotcha!" 

Inside the memorial booklet, there was a verse: Proverbs 18:21; "Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin."

Jessie Shipps was this type of friend. She lived a life of selfless service to everyone she met, loved unconditionally, and was loved in return. I was comforted to see this trait praised throughout the memorial. It was a beautiful celebration and recognition of a wonderful woman, who changed the life of everyone she met. 

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Former Marine corporal and fellow trans woman and SPARTA member Loren Sieg offered these parting words to her friend: 

My first memory of Jess was after I had volunteered to come up with some new logo ideas for SPARTA Trans. I was new to the group, but I really wanted to help out, even though I had no idea what I was doing. I Google image searched some pictures and put them together with the Trans flag. Almost immediately, Jess had about a hundred different tips to make my little logo better. The sheer amount of knowledge was overwhelming. It didn’t take her long to put up her new and improved versions. I would never let her have the satisfaction of knowing she was just a little bit better at Photoshop than me.

Jessie became a really good friend of mine. We collaborated on projects all the time. We pushed each other to get through our fears. I remember when she would call because she was so proud just for being herself at school. I remember when she would call because she was disappointed in herself that she went without makeup or without doing her hair, when she promised me she would. I remember how she’d call to vent her frustrations about the way people treated her, and how she was always available no matter what to listen to me vent about people at work. She had a lot of really hard days, and she’d always say that she couldn’t do it, that she was too afraid, but she did. She kept trying. She kept pushing through. I remember when she would call just to ask which color eye shadow she should use. I told her "all of them," just to throw her for a loop, and suddenly she was sending me pictures with rainbow makeup above her eyes.

I remember when she called me to tell me that she was checking herself into the VA and that she wanted to get better. I remember when she called from the hospital because they were mistreating her and she needed a friend to talk to. I remember telling her to grin and bear it, because things were going to get better. She was talking about leaving behind old habits and building bridges to new ones.

It wasn’t long after that she started really focusing on her work with SPARTA. She had always been actively contributing. Every few days there would be another funny video, watching her lipsync, dance in her truck, or make funny faces. "Lumberchick" always had something to make everyone laugh. Jessie got involved with almost all of the committees. She poured so many ideas and so much of herself into building a SPARTA that was better able to bring in new members and make sure everyone had the resources they needed to be OK. Behind the scenes, Jessie was always reaching out to new members, making sure they felt welcome and at home. Anytime someone was in  a rough situation, Jessie was probably one of the first people to make sure they were doing OK, and talk them through it if they weren’t.

Jessie was really good at hiding her pain. Nobody really saw exactly how much she was really struggling. All we saw was a shining beacon of hope. Jessie was radiant. After she passed, countless messages of support and innumerable stories came pouring in from people she’d personally saved when they were the ones struggling. She left a positive impact on every life she came into contact with. Jessie was an extraordinary woman. Not a day has gone by that I didn’t wish I could see a new video from her dashboard camera. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss the sound of her voice. I’d give anything to hear her tell me that my pictures could be better one more time.

I miss you, Jessie. We all do. And we’re better people for having known you. Thank you for letting us be a part of your life.

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