He phrases mildly what the public has immediately latched on to: Ortega is not just Army fit. He is all bulging pecs and biceps, hard abs, and sculpted torso and quadriceps — a man who’s gone above and beyond that old Army motto of “be all that you can be.”
Yet rather than draw attention to the unfathomable amount of work he’s put into honing his body, Ortega seems simply grateful that he was born disciplined enough to keep to an intense diet and workout schedule. He recognizes it as a gift that has allowed him to help other trans soldiers coming up behind him, and possibly what has enabled him to be out as trans in the military for so long.
Ortega, as it turns out, started intuitively striving for perfection among his military peers long before he hit the national spotlight — even before he knew exactly why he was doing it.
“Inadvertently, I was trying to set a precedent with my service,” he says, thinking back on his exemplary decade serving in the Marines and Army. “The reason why I train so hard, why I try to have high fitness standards even among men, is so that [the U.S. military] can’t be like, ‘Transgender men can’t achieve this standard’ or ‘They should be barred from Special Forces.’ … I can start a precedent of saying, ‘OK, they can meet the standard, stabilize their testosterone, they’re competent, they’re hard workers.'”
But, of course, Ortega would never have reached a place where he could set such precedents if his supervisors had long ago benched him when they learned he was transgender. And here is where his incomparable fitness and his honesty with his chain of command — two factors Ortega groups under a favorite word, “integrity” — seem to have played a key role.
Had Ortega’s performance faltered at any time, it may have been grounds for his commanders to follow military guidelines that instruct — but do not require — decision-makers to see being trans as evidence of “mental disorder.” But because he has met and exceeded standards, Ortega may possibly have been spared. And now, partly in response to the ACLU’s September motion, the decision of whether to separate trans soldiers like him has been taken out of the hands of his company commander and been placed with Assistant Secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs Debra S. Wada, the highest-ranking civilian in Army Command.
Discussing this on the other end of the phone line, Ortega patiently turns to the questions that still hang in the air: Why didn’t his then–company commander simply follow the guidance on separating trans soldiers four years ago when he began testosterone therapy? And why has the issue come up now? He moves to a quieter spot in his office and audibly settles in for a long explanation.