NEWS | June 29, 2022

One transgender Soldier's journey to find truth and happiness

By 1st Lt. Kyung Choi Exercise News Day

For nearly 30 years, U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Leo Phillips, felt like he wasn’t living his truth.

Born as Kiersten, Phillips spent most of his youth taking care of his three siblings in the absence of his parents. In that span of time, Phillips never really had the opportunity to focus on his needs, including the opportunity to question or explore his gender identity.

Now, free to be who he longed to be, Phillips came to the long-term realization that he identified as a male and wanted to start the gender transition process.

Phillips, a San Pedro, California, native and water treatment specialist assigned to the 968th Quartermaster (QM) Company (CO), recently attended annual training at the Quartermaster Liquid Logistics Exercise (QLLEX) at Camp Pendleton, California. For Phillips, May marks approximately one year since he began his gender transition journey. Back in May 2021, Phillips started his transitioning process by taking the first big step of notifying his chain of command. Phillips later underwent gender confirmation surgery in November 2021, and a second revision surgery this May.

Initially, Phillips wasn’t sure how to start the transitioning process. After speaking with the unit’s human resource non-commissioned officer and finding information through social media channels, such as TikTok and Facebook, he was able to take the first step of his transition.

“There’s resources out there that you can reach, and there’s a couple of Facebook groups that have helped me and guide me on what I need to do in order to change certain things,” Phillips said.

Being a transgender service member in the military, however, isn’t without its struggles. The Army’s latest transgender policy, DoD Instruction 1300.28, allows transgender personnel and individuals with gender dysphoria to serve openly while receiving medical care. Transgender service members are subject to the same standards, requirements, or policies associated with their gender marker in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS).

While the Army’s policy on transgender Soldiers offers a range of protections, there are some discomforts that transgender Soldiers like Phillips continue to experience, such as gender-specific showers and shared living spaces. Phillips recalls a recent encounter in the showers where another Soldier accidentally mis-gendered his identity, and that caused some discomfort as a result of him not wanting to put others in an uncomfortable position.

“I overthink and care too much about what others think, I don’t want to make someone feel uncomfortable,” Phillips said. “That’s why I like the porta-potties, because they’re more gender-neutral.”

Despite navigating through the gray areas and discomforts of being transgender, Phillips said that he couldn’t go through the transition process without the tremendous support from what he describes as his second family at the 968th QM CO.

“I definitely feel welcomed in my unit, especially by my first sergeant, he has been there for me to guide me,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m being looked at differently for who I am within my unit.”

In fact, some of the Soldiers have even approached Phillips to ask questions about his transition. “Some Soldiers are like, ‘What do you want me to call you, ‘he or she?’ and questions like that,” Phillips said.

When 1st Sgt. Brewster Thomas, a Los Angeles native and the senior enlisted leader of the 968th QM CO, first discovered Phillips’ decision to transition, he conveyed to Phillips that he would do everything he could to support his journey, including having leader conversations with all assigned troops.

“I made sure [the unit] understood that we’re not going to ostracize, we’re not going to single out, and we’re not going to make anyone feel uncomfortable or [like] they’re not part of the team,” said Thomas

And when Thomas heard about Phillips’ situation at the showers, he went out of his way and purchased a field shower so that Phillips could feel more comfortable during his transition.

“As a leader, it is my job to make sure I can accommodate as many of these Soldiers as possible because one of the things that I tell them when we’re in formation is: Look left, look right, this is it. This is who we’re going to war with. And to me, it’s critical that they start building the teams and the bonds here,” said Thomas.

To help build those connections, Soldiers in the 968th QM CO worked together throughout QLLEX to ensure the overall mission was successful. In addition to the unit’s desalinization mission of converting thousands of gallons of saltwater to potable water, Soldiers in the 968th QM CO stepped up in the absence of other units—taking on missions that aren’t necessarily within their scope of responsibilities.

“My Soldiers dug up the gray water sump because there was another unit that was supposed to do it, but they didn’t show up,” Thomas said. “My Soldiers were instrumental in the success of the mission, and I make sure that they know that.”

For Phillips, the guidance and support he received from Thomas and his unit has positively impacted his transition.

“Since I do have that support and feel welcomed and not viewed differently, I feel accepted for who I’m becoming,” he said.

In the foreseeable future, Phillips hopes to finalize his transition by changing his gender marker in DEERS and legally changing his birth name to Leo David Phillips, a nod to his late father.

Phillips hopes that his story will resonate with others—providing a source of encouragement for other Soldiers that may not feel comfortable about transitioning or coming out to their loved ones.

Comprised entirely of volunteers, the U.S. Army Reserve is a highly diverse and inclusive force that strives to put its people first. People are the Army Reserve’s greatest strength and most valuable asset.