Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik spent December 2018 deployed in Afghanistan with the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, volunteering to take the place of another soldier who could not deploy.
But even as she filled the combat billet, providing physical therapy to the brigade and military personnel throughout Afghanistan, the Pentagon and White House were working toward a plan to keep others like her from serving, because Stehlik is transgender.
On Wednesday, Stehlik and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann will be the first active-duty transgender personnel to testify before Congress as part of a panel looking at how President Donald Trump’s transgender policy impacts their ability to serve.
“I’m really here to talk about one question,” Stehlik said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. "And that is: What is the value of having transgender people in the military? Based on my experience first as a combat arms officer and medical provider, the answer is unequivocally that my transition and so many others has dramatically increased the readiness and lethality of every branch of the armed forces.”
Stehlik had begun transitioning in 2017. When she deployed in 2018, she wondered whether her presence as a transgender female would make it awkward for the rest of the unit after so many pronouncements and tweets by the White House about the supposed problems her service would create. She worried about serving as a physical therapist due to the amount of touch; she worried that she would be seen as invasive to other females in the unit.
Instead, she was able to help the unit’s readiness by keeping injuries to a minimum. She treated more than 1,700 patients in Afghanistan across the services and kept her unit’s medical evacuation rate due to musculoskeletal injuries under 1 percent.
“I’m proud of that,” Stehlik said.
The issue of whether transgender personnel will be allowed to continue to serve is now tied up in the courts, more than a year and a half after Trump’s initial tweets upended a policy that had allowed Stehlik and others to serve openly. In January, a Circuit Court sided with the White House, in one of the four federal cases challenging the policy. The court ruled that the process former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took to implement the president’s directive was sufficient and did not result in a blanket ban, something Stehlik and advocacy groups strongly disagree with.
For now, any changes to DoD’s transgender policy remain on hold pending final court decisions.
Dremann has served in the Navy for 13 years as a supply officer, deploying 11 times, including a year in Afghanistan supporting the 101st Airborne Division and aboard a ballistic submarine.
“I’ve been told three times over the course of my career that I am unfit to serve, not based on my capability to do the job, but because of either my gender assignment at birth, my sexual orientation prior to transition, or third for my gender identity,”
In 2010, when the Navy allowed women to serve on submarines, one of those blocks to service fell. Another fell in 2011 with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Dremann said.
In 2013, Dremann began transitioning to male, which he said made him a “better officer and a better leader.”
The House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee will take up the issue Wednesday, hearing from the service members and the Pentagon’s policy leadership, including James Stewart, who is performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Vice Adm. Raquel Bono, director of the Defense Health Agency.
Stehlik said its about being heard.
“I belong in a combat arms unit, taking care of my soldiers,” she said.
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.