The Army and Air Force’s top civilian leaders are pushing to throw out a federal district court lawsuit alleging that an airman in the West Virginia National Guard lost out on a human resources job due to discrimination over her sexual orientation and her appearance.
William Thompson, a Justice Department attorney for Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, denied the allegations in paperwork filed Feb. 14. The legal scuffle sheds light on underlying cultural issues within the organization and may derail the careers of multiple airmen in the process.
Kristin Kingrey, now a technical sergeant with the 130th Airlift Wing, enlisted in the West Virginia Air National Guard in 2007. By 2016, she was preparing to take a temporary civilian job in HR for the Army and Air Force.
That’s when Kingrey, a masculine-presenting lesbian who wears her hair short and doesn’t bother with makeup, began noticing changes at work.
Brig. Gen. Paige Hunter, the head of the West Virginia Air National Guard at the time, twice questioned whether Kingrey’s hair complied with service regulations and had it measured to prove that it did, according to a copy of an October 2020 equal employment opportunity complaint obtained by Air Force Times. The service’s regulations don’t specify a minimum hair length for women.
Kingrey began carrying the Air Force’s haircut rules in her pocket for anyone who questioned her appearance.
“It was demeaning and harassing,” she wrote in the EEO complaint.
It’s not the state Guard’s first brush with this problem, current and former airmen told Air Force Times: There have been other instances in which senior leaders were hostile toward gay troops and at least one other woman with short hair.
Kingrey defended herself against rumors that she was transitioning genders and dealt with others misgendering her in conversation and treating her rudely during routine drug tests and uniform fittings.
When others began questioning why she was using the women’s bathroom near her office, Kingrey sought out a single-stall restroom across the building instead, Helen Toby, a retired chief master sergeant in HR leadership, told Air Force Times. Toby was Kingrey’s supervisor and mentored the junior airman.
Kingrey worked in the HR job for about two years without incident until she deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, on active federal orders. She served as a passenger terminal shift supervisor from August 2018 to March 2019, ensuring traffic through the base airport ran smoothly.
“She was an outstanding troop — an amazing worker, very polite, very loyal,” Toby said. “Everyone got along with her very well.”
While Kingrey was overseas, Col. Michael Cadle, then the 130th Airlift Wing vice commander, went to lunch with Army Lt. Col. Kelly Ambrose, the top HR officer.
“Cadle made it a point to focus the conversation on plaintiff Kingrey and to make inappropriate, disparaging and intentionally discriminatory comments about [her] appearance,” Kingrey’s Nov. 23, 2021, legal complaint alleged.
Toby and Kingrey said Ambrose later told them that Cadle had warned her the technical sergeant’s career would suffer unless she started to look more feminine. He asked Ambrose to encourage the change.
Toward the end of her deployment, Kingrey applied for a permanent job as a civilian member of the HR leadership team in the Air Guard. She interviewed for the job in January 2019 and earned unanimous approval from Toby and Ambrose and her deputy, Lt. Col. Chad Board, the retired chief said.
Ambrose called to offer Kingrey the position. She accepted.
For the next three months, Kingrey filled out paperwork for the new job while she was deployed, the lawsuit said. She came home that spring but was sidelined by a knee injury that kept her from starting at work until early 2020.
More disappointment arrived that year, however.
Ambrose left the HR department after her two-year rotation and was replaced by Cadle as the interim boss. Board, a friend of Cadle’s who stayed on as his deputy, asked whether the organization could take back the hire and put someone in sooner. His experts’ answer was no.
“He says, ‘Well, by God, we’ll go to the Guard Bureau and ask.’ So we did,” Toby said.
A National Guard Bureau staffer told them the only way to get out of a hiring decision is if a budget problem arises, she continued.
“We had a budget person on our staff that would brief in our staff meetings every week. It wasn’t like the place is burning down around us,” Toby said. “There were glaring indicators that the budget was never an issue.”
In the spring of 2020, Board called Kingrey to tell her the Army had defunded the job. She wouldn’t start after all.
Kingrey suspects Cadle pressured Board and other lower-ranking people to rescind the offer. The colonel had insight into the hiring process through his work as both the airlift wing’s No. 2 officer and as head of manpower and personnel at West Virginia ANG headquarters.
“This select group of senior leaders, they’re influential, and they have influence on the federal civilian side and the military side. It became very apparent to me that they were going to impact my career,” Kingrey told Air Force Times.
Wormuth and Kendall’s defense lawyer contends that Kingrey was never chosen for the position, it was never filled and was later cancelled over budget concerns.
Toby told Air Force Times that, technically, an airman needs to return from deployment before officials can finalize their move into a different job. But “by all intents and purposes,” she said, Kingrey was chosen, the decision approved, and the position offered and accepted.
“We were all in the room,” Toby said. “We witnessed it.”
Kingrey returned to the HR job she had before deploying to Qatar; the military later reposted the permanent position as a temporary job, saying it wasn’t subject to the same financial issues. The Guard hired someone other than Kingrey.
Kingrey applied for another position handling employee benefits in September 2020. She worked in the same job before deploying and had the right training, she said.
“Board requested I be the top candidate for the interviews … [and] even called my full-time supervisor, Lt. Col. Farmer, to see if I would come off Title 10 orders soon to return to HRO to do this job,” she wrote. “Farmer also contacted my military supervisor to tell him I was going to get the job.”
But she didn’t. The government responded that she ranked fourth in a field of several applicants based on her interview score, and the highest-scoring person got the job. Cadle approved the hire, according to the EEO complaint.
“There was no discrimination in the selection of that applicant,” the government said in its legal response. “Sex and sexual orientation played no role in their selection as the successful applicant, and [they were] considered the best qualified for that position.”
Fearing foul play, Kingrey filed an equal employment opportunity complaint in October 2020. It was rejected the following summer.
Upon learning that the West Virginia Guard planned to promote Cadle in March 2021, Kingrey wrote to Air Force headquarters to urge service leaders to take her complaint seriously.
“I am beyond angry that I have had to keep fighting an agency who continues to act in blatant disregard for EEO regulations and who intentionally stomps on my rights as a complainant,” she told then-acting Air Force Secretary John Roth, National Guard boss Gen. Daniel Hokanson and Air National Guard commander Lt. Gen. Michael Loh in emails obtained by Air Force Times.
A colonel at Air Force headquarters told Kingrey that the Inspector General’s Office would not pursue her claims because they relate to civilian employment and because her equal opportunity complaint was still open, according to a March 2021 letter obtained by Air Force Times.
The same month, on March 8, Brig. Gen. Ray Shepard, then the top air official in the West Virginia National Guard, called to check on Kingrey after Ambrose told him about the situation. But two days later, Brig. Gen. William Crane, the West Virginia adjutant general, told him “not to get further involved in the complaint filed by TSgt Kingrey,” Shepard wrote in a memo obtained by Air Force Times.
“Crane expressed concern that Lt. Col. Ambrose was attempting to use TSgt Kingrey and myself to further her own complaint about not being promoted,” he added. Shepard, who retired earlier this month, declined an interview request from Air Force Times.
In April, Crane appointed Cadle to the state Guard’s new Joint Diversity Executive Council. Cadle and 18 others will serve for two years while developing plans to foster diversity and equity within the Guard.
The National Guard also began investigating Kingrey and Ambrose for fraternization, or improper relationships within the military. Toby said she was briefly contacted for the investigation and believes it was meant to discredit the key witnesses in Kingrey’s EEO complaint.
The retired chief added that the inquiry stopped Ambrose’s promotion to colonel as well. The Senate received the request to promote Ambrose on May 21, 2020; it’s unclear whether it went through.
“It’s a ‘good ol’ boy’ system there. It’s chauvinistic. I think they’re racist and I think they’re homophobic,” Toby said. “Unfortunately, it’s in the leadership ranks. It’s not in the underlings.”
Cadle, who has since become the state Air Guard’s chief of staff and director of the joint staff at Joint Forces Headquarters Charleston, was promoted to brigadier general in September 2021.
It’s stressful to report to work each day while the same leaders are still in Kingrey’s chain of command.
“I never know what form of retaliation I may be facing that day,” she said. “I show up every day. I give 100% toward my job and I go home. But it is something that is constantly looming over me.”
The Guard did not respond to requests for comment from Air Force Times about any of the issues or allegations. The government rebuttal rejected Kingrey’s discrimination complaint as well as the claim that the National Guard had opened an investigation into supposed fraternization.
DOJ told the court the case violates the Feres doctrine, a legal principle that stops service members who are injured while on active duty from successfully suing the federal government; is filed in the wrong jurisdiction; sues the wrong parties; and fails to present a claim that requires relief, among several other arguments in its defense.
“Acts of discrimination alleged by the plaintiff occurred while she was on active duty in the military, and such claims are barred by the sovereign immunity of the United States, the Feres doctrine and other applicable federal” laws, Thompson wrote in the rebuttal.
A scheduling meeting ahead of a prospective trial is set for April 11, according to a timeline that Judge Joseph Goodwin issued Feb. 15. Unless either side decides to drop the case, it will run through at least April 25 in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of West Virginia.
Kingrey, who is seeking a jury trial, is asking to be appointed to the HR jobs in question and to receive lost wages from the higher-paying job she was offered in January 2019. Hissam Forman Donovan Ritchie, a Charleston, West Virginia-based law firm, is representing her in court.
“I love this country, and I absolutely love the state of West Virginia,” she said. “I’m not done wearing the uniform. I feel that I have more to do.”
The airman hopes her decision to file suit and go public will help shape a better future for other service members, so that others won’t face the same hardships she’s endured.
“She’ll call me,” Toby said, “and she’ll say, ‘Chief, I got an email from a senior airman out in Kirtland [Air Force Base], New Mexico, that says she appreciates what I’m doing.’ I guarantee you that’s probably going to grow.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.