Tarrence Robertson enlisted in the National Guard in 2005, at a time when he had little options and didn't know what to do with his life.
The military offered the chance to turn it all around, and Robertson – who grew up on the Iron Range – grasped on to every opportunity, earning a degree in Biomedical Science and working his way up to captain and company commander.
Now 12 years into his career, the 34 year old works full time as the Alcohol and Drug Control Officer for the National Guard's substance abuse program. He's been a dedicated soldier and has the medals to prove it. But a lot of the recognition Robertson received over the years made him feel like a fraud.
That's because for the majority of his military career, Robertson was living as Tara, a female – even though he'd felt like a male since childhood.
"Throughout all of this time, I was accomplishing all of these things and getting recognition for being the first female to do a number of different things locally, nationally, and so on, and I felt like a fraud," he told GoMN. "And there were a lot of young female soldiers that looked up to me and would always come and talk to me at different events about how inspirational I was."
Robertson wanted to transition, but worried what people would think. He also didn't really think it would be an option while he was enlisted, so he never talked about it.
"I kept that part of my life extremely buried because the military had done so much for me, and I couldn't fathom not being a soldier and getting kicked out. Because it really transformed my life and every decision that I've made in my life," he said.
Then last year, in a decision that Robertson felt was "kind of out of the blue," the Obama administration lifted the ban on transgender individuals serving in the military. Shortly after that, Robertson began the process of transitioning.
And then he had to tell everyone.
Nobody said anything at first, he says. But in an annual survey a few months later, people wrote a few anonymous concerns about having a trans commander or having to share a bathroom with him. Robertson knew he needed to be open and answer any questions and concerns head on. So when the military implemented training about transgender troops, he led the sessions.
Despite his worries that people wouldn't see him in the same light or look up to him as a mentor anymore, the adverse reactions never came.
"I haven't had that response whatsoever from any of the people that looked up to me, the young soldiers still see me in the same way that they did before, which has been phenomenal," he said.
Robertson says his gender is a non-issue these days. People at work and drill now call him "Sir" or "Capt. Robertson," and he's legally changed his name and gender on his driver’s license and birth certificate – though he's still waiting for the official stamp to change his gender on his military records.
Last month, Robertson made the decision to speak to the media for the first time. And the timeliness couldn't have been more paramount because less than two weeks later, President Trump tweeted that transgender people wouldn't be allowed to serve in the military.
Now Robertson is among an estimated 2,150 to 10,790 soldiers waiting to find out if those tweets will actually lead to a policy change that would have transgender troops discharged.
Why share your story? I don't like labels. I worked extremely hard all throughout my career prior to transitioning to just be seen as another soldier and not have the label of being a female soldier that has these limitations, that can't do X, Y, and Z.
But I feel almost obligated to be a voice and to put this out there and to have that label because people respect me in the military, and they know all of the things that I've done and trust me as a person. I feel like I'm in a position where I might be able to affect some change. And if I don't take the opportunity to do that... I think I'm doing a disservice to the community and to social change.
I think that I have to do this, because I'm strong enough to take the criticism and to weed through the BS and peoples' ignorance and things like that, and to come out a lot stronger.
What would you do if you were discharged for being trans? I think that I would probably become even more civically engaged. I'm limited in what I can and can't do because I'm a member of the military currently. That's the choice that I've made for my life and my career, and I'm okay with that. But if that came to be, I think I would definitely seize the opportunity to really become an even stronger advocate and voice for everybody.
Is it really expensive to allow trans people to serve in the military? There's a lot of misinformation out there about costs, and I think it's an extremely small price to pay for people that sacrifice everything to do something bigger than themselves. And it turns out to be an extremely small fraction of the actual budget.
People also don't realize the cost that it takes to train a new soldier. It's an exorbitant amount of money to take a brand new recruit and put them through basic training, advanced training, continued education and schools and so on. It would cost way more money in the long run if they were to kick everybody out and then train in a bunch of new people.
How about the argument about missing deployments? Again, I think it's misinformation and lack of understanding. Speaking from my own personal experience – I elected to have top surgery and was at drill less than two weeks after I had surgery. I didn't miss any training whatsoever. Even in the most serious of cases, it's pretty rare that somebody would ever be out for longer than six weeks.
And it's deemed by every professional medical association to be a medically necessary treatment for people that suffer from severe dysphoria. Just like if you were to have any other medical condition that required a surgery to treat it, and might have to take some time off – but nobody says anything about that.
Any other misconceptions you want to address? Just be kind. At the end of the day, that is not a difficult thing to do. There are many things in life that we all disagree on, or don't see eye to eye on. But why can't we just be compassionate toward one another as people?
I also think there's a big misconception that trans people are mentally ill. I would encourage people to do their own research from accredited, scientific sources that plainly state that's not the case. And to also research how being trans is something that's been around since the beginning of time, and is socially acceptable and embraced in other cultures.
When it comes to being trans in the military specifically, people need to know that there are 18 of our NATO allied countries that allow trans people to serve without any issue whatsoever. How come it's an issue in our military? They have no problems. And things that people say might happen aren't happening – why would it be any different for us?