A Life of Service
Brynn Tannehill | On 11, Jun 2013
Eagle Scout with Silver Palm
Air Force medical Service Technician
Member of FEMA’s Disaster Medical Response Team, deployed after hurricanes Allison, Katrina and Rita
Coast Guard Auxiliary Volunteer
Medical services officer on Navy ships deployed six times in eight years
Some people seem born for service, moving through life at the tip of the spear while managing to support the ones around them who need it most. Nicole Shounder is one of those people.
Raised on Dover Air Force Base in the early 1970’s, Nicole was influenced by the career of her father, a C-141 flight engineer. “I grew up with a desire to follow my father’s footsteps in the Air Force, but not necessarily his flying status. I often saw the stacks of what I called ‘the aluminum suitcases’—the flight coffins coming back from the war in Vietnam. At the time I thought, If that’s the number of people who are dying, my God, how many people are hurt and wounded?”
Nicole enlisted in the Air Force in 1978, and was first assigned to Loring AFB in Maine. “I worked in the Emergency Room and flew on emergency air evacuations to larger medical facilities in Southern Maine and New Hampshire. During that tour I was selected Below the Zone for E-4; I made E-5 in less than four years. I received the USAF Commendation Medal in January 1981 as an E-5 as a result of the work that I did leading up to these promotions.”
Her second tour sent Nicole to the West coast as an Independent Duty Medical Technician to the USAF Combat Crew Aircrew Survival School near Fairchild AFB in Washington State. “I followed aircrew members through their survival school training and took care of students in the survivor instructor school program. I flew air evacuations on UH1-N’s, including hoisting recovery on SAR missions.”
Overshadowing Nicole’s early career success, though, was the struggle to hold gender dysphoria at bay. As early as 1983 she was seeing a counselor with the intention of finding a cure and come to terms with her male identity.
It didn’t work.
She left the Air Force in 1985, but returned to active duty two years later, realizing that transition would be impossible without the benefit of higher education. Assigned as a Medical Service Technician to McChord AFB in Tacoma, WA, Nicole served as an Acute Care Clinic Shift leader. In 1990, she was nominated for the Brigadier General Sarah P. Wells award for Best Medical Service Technician in the Air Force.
Unfortunately, Nicole was involuntarily separated as part of a Reduction In Force (RIF), a result of the Post-Cold War draw down in 1992. “With 180 days’ notice and severance money, I completed all of the academics for an Associate’s Degree in nursing on my way out of the Air Force.” Shortly thereafter, Nicole qualified as a Registered Nurse (RN).
Still struggling with gender dysphoria, the stress became apparent in all aspects of her life, and almost cost Nicole her job.
One day, the Chief Nurse there pulled me off to the side and said, “Look, we value who and what you are. We want you to stay working here, but we need you to make a decision rather than waffling. It is becoming pretty tense for some of the nurses.”
Basically, she was saying she wanted me to take a couple of months off on the employee assistance program and figure out what I needed to do. “If you can’t, and if there isn’t any change,” she said, “I’m probably going to have to let you go. And, by the way, if you do value what people think, nine out of the twelve nurses here actually like Nicole better than they like Nick.”
[The Call of Nursing: Voices from the Front Lines of Healthcare]
Nicole’s personal life suffered, as well. When they married, Nicole’s spouse knew about the gender issues, and together the couple agreed to put off transition. As is the case for many trans people, though, Nicole found that she couldn’t wait any longer. In October 1995, Nicole legally changed her name, and her divorce was finalized two months later.
Nicole soon found support she when met her future wife Kate in 1996 at a group meeting. They hit it off immediately and have been together since. By the end of the year Nicole had jumped through all the administrative hoops, and her completed transition became only a matter of time and money.
Kate had transitioned some years prior to meeting Nicole. They timed events such that Nicole was still male for the legal purpose of marriage, and Kate was female when they got married in 1999. Nicole did this intentionally just a few months prior to finishing her transition, which would have made their relationship same-sex by legal definitions. “We had already committed ourselves to each other as a same-sex couple. Even wore rings. Then with only months to go, it dawned on me there wasn’t anything really legally stopping us. She was legally female on all paperwork and taxes,” says Nicole.
I asked Kate about whose idea it was to get married. “We both came up with it at the same time as a last chance to get legally married, since we’d already been together for years. We decided, let’s just do it.”
Getting married in Nevada in 1999 proved to be harder and more humorous than they anticipated, since they were both living in their target gender full time. “It almost got to the point of show-and-tell with the license people downtown,” Nicole joked, “but I won out with a current U.S. passport.”
During this time, Nicole became an emergency room trauma nurse and joined the Seattle King County Disaster Response Team (FEMA WA-1). She emergency deployed to Houston and New Orleans to support military and civilian medical needs in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Allison, Katrina and Rita. It was not the last time she would provide medical support to the military.
Eventually, adventure called again and Nicole joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a move that seemed right when, in 2006, she was offered a position by Maersk Shipping lines as a Contract Medical Services Officer (CMSO) for overseas employment with Special Missions program with the Military Sealift Command (MSC). A part of the Department of the Navy, MSC assets include USNS ships, chartered vessels, government contractors, Department of the Navy (DoN) civilians, and active duty Navy personnel.
Nicole’s first deployment as a Maersk contractor was in 2007 on the USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS 23) submarine surveillance vessel. It did not take long for her status as a transgender individual to make the rounds. Whispers and jokes swirled behind her back, but she didn’t let it bother her. She had a job to do.
The rumors culminated in an unsettling incident at the beginning of her second deployment, this time on board the USNS Able (T-AGOS 20). Two weeks after coming on board, someone entered her state room and left a caustic substance on her toothbrush which left chemical burns on the inside of her mouth when she used it. Nicole waited for almost a week to report the incident because the burns were taking longer than expected to heal. The ship’s Master was appalled and angry. “Why the hell didn’t you report this when it happened?” he demanded.
“Because you would have cut me a check for the remainder of my contract and I wouldn’t have deployed with the ship,” she replied, “and they would have won. This isn’t any different than when we integrated blacks and women into the Maritime Service.”
The crew was reprimanded by the Ship’s Master as a result, and nothing similar occurred for the rest of the deployment. Meanwhile, Nicole’s determination and hard work earned the respect of the Master, and by the end of the deployment he was her strongest supporter when she applied for the civil service. Nicole saw this as a chance to buy back her time in the Air Force, as well as work in a challenging job she had come to enjoy.
Nicole was accepted into civil service with the Military Sealift Command in 2008 and appointed to the rank equivalent of Lieutenant Commander. She has deployed four times on four different ships: the submarine tender USS Emory S. Land, the dry stores supply ship USNS Robert E Peary, the fleet oiler USNS Joshua Humphries, and most recently the forward staging base USS Ponce. These deployments have carried her all over the world. Additionally, while in the 5th Fleet AOR the USS Ponce fell under direct Navy command.
She was recognized as the MSC civilian employee of the year for 2011, and received decorations the Civil Service Global war on terrorism for her time underway. In the vast majority of cases, colleagues have behaved professionally regarding her transgender status. “I have found the civilian, federal, and active duty people I work with to be respectful. By and large I have always had good working relationships with the active duty members,” observed Nicole.
Not everyone liked the idea of transgender people serving beside them, though. “There have been jokes and slurs made about me, but not to me. That has to count for something, right?” However, she manages takes a philosophical approach to her detractors. “Those who feel differently may move a step away from me or go elsewhere; that’s their right.”
I asked Kate about how she feels about Nicole’s frequent deployments. Her answer was similar to other military spouses. “If I said I was happy or delighted about it, it would be a lie. But, she helped me with my career, and now I’m supporting hers. Kate is able to see the positives. “In short run, it’s tough. But, it’s worth it in the long run if we’re able to retire together.”
Still, Nicole knows she’s in the right place. “I love the job. If it were all to stop right now, I would have some great memories. I feel like I am just hitting my stride. I have done much more as Nicole than as my former self, because I don’t have anything holding me back. How many others could be giving more to their respective services if they didn’t have to be spending huge amounts of energy remaining closeted?”
Nicole’s pride in wearing the uniform again is evident. “Every day I can pin on the collar brass or the epaulets assigned to me by the US Navy and MSC is an honor and a privilege I will give full measure. It was made clear I was selected because of the skills and experience I have to offer. While assigned to USS Ponce, I was able to show that an out and openly transgender person can succeed in challenging operational situations. Being recognized by the Navy League and the Surface Navy Association has been a great honor. Word does get out eventually.”
The lasting impact of her deployments’ significance is not lost on Nicole. “I see this as no different than the struggle for women at sea, the integration issues in the 1950’s, or now the integration of openly serving LGB people.”
Nicole is hopeful but realistic about the hurdles ahead of us as a community. “Open service for transgender people will happen. Not tomorrow or next year, but sometime. It is an incremental process, and trust will need to be built. Full equality for LGB service members must happen first. After that, openly serving transgender people will be as much a non-event as openly serving LGB people once was. I just hope that the examples set by me and others will effectively demonstrate that there really isn’t an issue.”
Note: For more of Nicole’s story, read her chapter in The Call of Nursing: Voices from the Front Lines of Health Care by William Patrick.