This past year, we have all seen the disgraceful instances of discrimination emanating from this president and his White House. One such instance of division has now come to fruition as President Trump has moved to ban most transgender troops from serving in the military. This immediately brings me back to the pain and shame I felt when I was discharged from the military for being gay.
I was 18 years old when, without my parents’ knowledge, I voluntarily enlisted to serve my country. I remember that day vividly, as I couldn’t have been prouder to be following in my grandfather’s footsteps, a man I idolized and who also served in the Air Force. I grew up in a poor family, in a rural area in the southwest corner of Vermont. Like many young men and women in my community, college was not an option for me, and so I thought my greatest possibility for a higher education and brighter future would be through the military. My plan was to serve my time, and utilize the benefits of the GI Bill, thus fulfilling two dreams: service to my country and eventually graduating from college.
Off to basic training I went, where I was under no illusion of the difficult transition ahead. I remember how scared I was that first night, ushered off the plane in Texas, placed on buses in complete silence until we arrived on base. Then nothing but yelling, and picking up and putting down our bags until we moved in total unison as a team. I won’t bore you with more details of training, but suffice it to say it was a rapid period of growth. In that short time, I gained confidence and purpose, while connecting with my fellow brothers and sisters from all across the nation—every race, religion, and culture coming together to grow as a team and defend this country. I had proven I could make it on my own.
Directly after basic, I went to tech school for my security forces education. During this time, I began to change. What I had suppressed for so long began knocking on my soul. My service, my brotherhood, my bond to the people around me grew stronger, yet I couldn’t confide in anyone, because if I did, everything I had worked so hard for would be taken away. I started feeling depressed. I graduated tech school, but before heading to Shaw Air Force Base for my first tour, I was granted 30 days of well-earned leave. I was so proud to have earned the security forces badge and beret, and I remember arriving at the airport feeling three inches taller in my dress blues, with a sense of accomplishment I had never felt before. I was greeted at the airport with a hero’s welcome by my entire family with a huge sign that read, “Welcome home, Brad! We are so proud of you.” Back in Vermont, I remember feeling like I was contributing to something larger for both my country and community.
When I arrived in South Carolina, things quickly deteriorated. I became further depressed and most nights couldn’t sleep. I would wake up at 1, 2, 3 in the morning, and go out to the track and run, sometimes for hours, just to suppress the pain. Here I was, surrounded by people who genuinely cared for me, in a stable environment for one of the first times in my life, and having to hide who I was. I finally started seeing a therapist on base, and my life changed forever.
I came out as a gay soldier. The reaction was swift. Because of the disastrous policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I was released from the military for being gay, though they labeled it an “anti-social personality disorder.” Discharged from the family I had created, and for simply being who I was, rejected and sent home, I felt like a disgrace. After volunteering to serve, after raising my right hand and swearing to defend, protect and give my life for this country, I was discriminated against by my government. There would be no GI Bill for me, no support system; there would be no hero’s welcome home this time. Only lots of questions, concerns, lies, and so much shame it almost made me pull the trigger and end my life. How could I face my family, my friends, my community, as a failure? How many brave men, women and trans people have taken their lives because of the shame our government has placed upon them, for simply being who they are?
Now, after 18 years of carrying around this pain, I am speaking out to ensure no trans soldier will end their life because they feel rejected by this government. I will not sit idly by while this president and many Republican members of Congress attempt to shame trans people who have signed up to make the ultimate sacrifice. I will not sit by to watch this disgraceful, disqualifying discrimination happen again. Lives are at stake.
Now is our time, America, to stand strong and rise united, embracing each other for all of our differences. Now is the time to open our arms and strengthen our communities, so that we all have a place to belong and call home, where we are celebrated and loved for exactly who we are. I know firsthand the power of an open and loving community, where people still wave, still stop to say hello, in an acknowledgment that you exist in the world—you matter. These are the connections and simple acts of kindness that can and do save lives. I know this to be true, because my community opened their arms and helped save mine.
Brad Peacock is a U.S. Air Force veteran. For the past 12 years, he has worked as a farmer at Clear Brook Farm. He lives with his husband in Shaftsbury, Vt., and is running as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate.