In four combat deployments, Master Sgt. Erika Stoltz has been rocked by roadside explosions, targeted by bullets and rocket-propelled grenades, and shaken by an enemy attack that claimed a buddy’s life.
Now the Sun Prairie resident may be discharged from the military and lose her job because her deeply felt — and long hidden — identity as a woman does not match the male gender she was assigned at birth based on anatomy alone.
Stoltz said her heart sank Wednesday after her phone came alive with messages from friends about President Donald Trump’s Twitter posts promising to reinstate the military’s ban on transgender service members.
“I thought, ‘Oh, we all just lost our jobs,’ ” Stoltz said in an interview Thursday. “But on further reflection, tweets don’t dictate policy. The Department of Defense is the one that will come out with some kind of policy.”
Military authorities referred questions about Trump’s tweets to the White House and told transgender personnel like Stoltz to stand by while they decide what to do.
But after 30 years in uniform, and the joy she felt when the ban was lifted in 2016, this latest development burns, she said.
“There are thousands of people in this military who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, and all we want to do is serve,” Stoltz said. “But as of yesterday I don’t know what is going to happen.”
It was less than two years ago that Stoltz told her commanders and fellow soldiers that the sergeant they had known as Eric felt certain she was a woman.
At that time, the Pentagon was preparing to announce that transgender service members, like gay and lesbian personnel, would no longer need to be secretive. Stoltz said her commanding officer had just one question: Could she still do her job? She said she could. He said, no problem.
She attended her unit’s 2015 Christmas party “dressed as myself,” and found nearly everyone was supportive.
“Almost all of the military people I’ve known throughout my 30-something years in the military is as long as you can cover my (back) and I can cover your (back), and we can watch out for each other, that’s all that matters,” Stoltz said.
Still, if she had come out much earlier, commanders would have been expected to discharge her.
Wanted to serve
Stoltz said she knew growing up she was different in a way society didn’t accept, so she kept it to herself.
“I joined the military to be a better person, and I wanted to serve my country,” Stoltz said. “But through the years it just got harder and harder and harder for me.”
The La Crosse native enlisted in the active-duty Army in 1980 soon after high school. After three years she transferred to the Marine Corps, and later the Marine reserve. After that she joined the Army reserve, and she remains a member today.
In addition, for the last 17 years she has held a full-time civilian job handling human resources for the unit.
As a reserve she trains one weekend a month, plus one two-week session annually. Without her reserve status, she could not keep the full-time civilian job.
Stoltz deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2014. Long before that she went to Iraq during the Gulf War. She returned to Iraq in 2005, to serve in a security detail that patrolled outside a base. It was a year when violence was escalating. Nearly 850 U.S. personnel were killed, including a friend whose patrol vehicle ran over a hidden bomb and went up in flames.
Stoltz’s last two deployments were as a combat engineer who searched for buried bombs. Twice her convoy found them the hard way. She said she suffers from headaches that began in 2011 after an improvised explosive device blew up directly under her vehicle.
She has received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Madison.
‘In a dark little
room in my mind’
After the 2014 deployment, she came out to her wife of 20 years, and went into counseling at the VA.
“I was depressed, living in a little dark room in my mind,” Stoltz said.
At the VA she received hormone replacement therapy that she said aligned her “mind and body and spirit as one.” The therapy and being open with family and friends lifted a huge weight, she said. Stoltz and her wife are still married.
“Now I’m a happier and more vibrant person, and I’m able to do things with my wife I couldn’t do before ... My wife is happy, and all the people I know know I’m happy.”
Stoltz feels frustrated and apprehensive about the president’s plans. She doesn’t relish the idea of finding another job as a transgender woman at the age of 55.
Despite research indicating transgender personnel serving openly had little affect on costs or readiness, Trump asserted that he was acting to prevent disruption and “tremendous medical costs.”
Stoltz said she has been in contact with many other transgender service members in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but until now hadn’t agreed to interview requests from news reporters.
The threat that the ban could be reinstated made her reconsider.
“The biggest thing,” Stoltz said, “is for every person in the LGBT community to fight for equality, to fight for the right to be a human being, to never give up, never give in, and be visible.”