Note: I have not used any real names in this article. However, the people, places, and events described are real (to the best of my recollection).
Most people spend their lives actively seeking to create their legacy. For most people it is by having children, being good parents, and then good grandparents. For others it is the accumulation of wealth. Inventors have left indelible marks on our history and culture as well. Politicians and generals guide nations through both war and peace. For my childless, staff-grade officer Uncle “Michael”, though, there seemed to be no legacy after his senseless death in Iraq in 2003. Until now.
My mother re-married into a large Italian family 23 years ago. Me, my brother, and my mother were a part of their extended family even five years before that. There was scarcely a time when Michael wasn’t a role model. He was the shining star of my large step-family. He was the one who stepped up to take care of all the younger kids in the family when their lives were thrown into the turmoil caused by his younger brother developing, and dying, of leukemia at the age of 5. He was quiet, empathetic, and thoughtful: something that never described anyone else in the seething mass of kids in a traditional blue-collar Italian family. He was driven, brilliant, and a top 5% student at West Point.
Despite his class standing, he became a logistics officer instead of the usual paths to flag rank in the army: armor or infantry. He still managed to find his way to the tip of the spear throughout his career: Pershing II nuclear missile batteries in Germany in the 1980’s, just south of the DMZ in Korea in the 1990’s, and supporting the 101st Airborne during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As a result, he was up for promotion from Lieutenant Colonel to Colonel, and expected to make it, when he went over the line with the mechanized infantry in March 2003.
When he died, only days after President Bush declared “Mission accomplished,” it was beyond senseless. His entire unit was leaving, heading in a convoy to Kuwait to stow their equipment on giant roll-on roll-off transport ships bound for Fort Sill. Their role in the war was essentially over, for at least another year. The giant tractor trailer in front of his hummer was operated by a contracting firm owned by the Kuwaiti royal family. The driver was an unqualified, unregistered Pakistani who fell asleep at the wheel, jackknifed the truck, and cut off Michael’s vehicle. He was ejected, and killed instantly on impact. The US government was never able to locate the driver of the semi for interview, and the post mishap report was a third rate hatchet job that the Casualty Assistance Officer apologized for.
I went to the funeral at Arlington as a member of the family, a fellow academy graduate, and as a fellow officer. My step-father summed up the family’s feeling succinctly in his eulogy: “He was the best of all of us.” There was no hyperbole in this statement, it was sincere and accepted by all there.
Not long after the last note of taps played, the last echo of the 21-gun salute faded away, we all wondered, what, if any, legacy did Michael leave behind? Most senior officer killed in Iraq (up until about 2006) isn’t a legacy, it is a historical footnote. No wife, no kids, just an insurance policy and some personal belongings divided amongst his parents and 5 living siblings. Years passed, and the insurance money drifted into nothingness as the business ventures it funded collapsed in 2008 and 2009. The answer looked as if whatever legacy he had left, had been squandered.
Fast forward to 2012. My 16 years in the military were unceremoniously over, and I was telling my mother by herself that I am transsexual. I was fairly certain Mom would love me no matter what (even if she didn’t understand), but had been assuming my step-father’s blue collar family would be a write-off. As my spouse put it, “They probably don’t have the tools to understand.” During the long, painful conversation with Mom I tried to explain to her that the military and the police are very common places for transgender people to hide from the world, and from themselves. Her eyes glazed over, and she murmured, “You know, we found things when we cleaned out Michael’s apartment after he died. Your step-father and Michael’s sister won’t talk about it much, but those size 13 high heels definitely didn’t belong to a girlfriend. There was a lot more than just the shoes, too.”
I left my mother’s house in Arizona immediately after the conversation, and headed home with my family to go back to Ohio by train. The next day, somewhere just east of Albuquerque, I got a phone call from my mother. She had told my step-father. They were both vowing their support for me, and my family, no matter what. I asked her if my step-father was angry, or if his response to my pronouncement that I am transsexual was something along the lines of, “Shut up. No you’re not.”
“No,” she replied. “Almost everyone on his side of the family had known about Michael for a while, even before he died. Including Michael’s father.”
I didn’t know what legacy my uncle had left, until today. It was one he never intended, and likely never even wanted. I don’t know if he was a transsexual waiting to transition when he left the army, or just a cross dresser. No one probably ever will. But he left a lesson in love, acceptance, and tolerance for his family that they never expected. Even a hero can be transgender. And being transgender doesn’t prevent you from being the best out of all of us.
Thank you Michael. That is a legacy to be proud of.