Posted in Articles

First transgender officer finds acceptance, purpose in Israel Defense Forces

Sitting before a group of 60 peers would rarely be difficult for a highly-trained military officer, but this time was different.

“I told them, ‘I want to tell you a personal story.’ I was going to give them a quick look at my world, so if they have a soldier (under their command) with the same story, they would know how to treat them,” said Lt. Shachar.*

Shachar is the first openly transgender officer in the Israel Defense Forces, starting his military service as a female soldier and then graduating from officer training as a male.

He was recently in Chicago and participated in the Pride Parade, visited with several members of Jewish United Fund’s Young Leadership Division, and attended a salute to LGBTQ veterans in Daley Plaza-all during the same week the United States military announced that transgender people may serve openly.

Born female, Shachar said by age 5, he felt that he was in the wrong body. “I was never a girl. From the first moment, it was not only how I acted-it was how I felt.”

Puberty’s arrival-and along with it, a decidedly female body-exacerbated the conflict between his outward appearance and inner self.

“It really became a problem to me…I didn’t believe there was a way to explain my feelings to others. I wanted to disappear to a faraway country where no one knew me.

“I didn’t think there was a place in the world for me.”

At 16, he could no longer hide his secret. He desperately needed to tell a family member or friend or therapist-someone who would listen. By chance, he met someone who identified as transgender, born female and who was now a man.

“I thought it’s not only in my head. Because he was finally someone I could relate to. He was a missing piece of the puzzle…I now had a way to express these feelings.”

Shachar told his parents and close friends, one conversation at a time. “It was scary and I stumbled with my words.” Yet more than anything, he felt relief.

Then, at age 18, it was time to enlist, as is required in Israel.

“I wanted to be the best soldier I could,” he said. “I wanted to do the best service. I formed guidelines for myself and decided I wouldn’t let anything negative affect my service.”

Still, there was the issue of his identity.

“When I joined, I chose not to tell my peers. But I trusted my commanders,” he said. “I was so fortunate that my first conversation with my commander was up front. The only question she had was ‘OK, how can I help you?'”

“I am very proud of my uniform, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being dressed as a woman,” Shachar said. “They gave me permission to wear a uniform that is unisex. It was a great solution. We still use this solution today.”

Shachar transitioned from physically female to male during his service. For all who serve, the IDF provides medical care that includes treatments for gender dysphoria, a medically defined condition in which a person experiences distress because there’s a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. Still, the only people who were aware of his situation were his commanding officers, until he neared the end of his officer training course.

“I asked myself what kind of officer I was going to be. I wanted to have an open and honest relationship with my soldiers.”

A conviction to creating a trusting relationship between himself and those under his command-like he experienced with his commanding officer-compelled him to share his story with 60 of his peers.

They had no idea he started life as a female. Once again, he was in a vulnerable position, unsure of their response.

He found the group to be accepting-and curious, asking many questions. “From this moment on, it wasn’t a secret anymore,” he said.

He was asked to tell his story to a reporter. A week after the article published, a teenager contacted the reporter, hoping to speak to Shachar because he was transgender, too.

“Then came another one. And then another one. I realized there was a bigger picture to my personal story. There is an issue to be addressed.”

He was invited to work with the chief gender officer, a brigadier-general who oversees all matters of gender and women’s issues for those serving in the IDF, to better understand the needs of transgender soldiers.

“They (IDF leadership) actively look at ways to make our service better,” he said. “The IDF is flexible with its policies. Policies are always changing so each and every [soldier] gets what they need.”

Shachar is continuing his service as an advisor and speaker. In the future, he wants to attend university to major in engineering, and plans to volunteer with the IDF to work on transgender issues.

*Lt. Shachar’s last name has been excluded per Israel Defense Forces policy.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 edition of JUF News.


Posted in Articles

An officer and a role model

Somber emotions filled the East Troy High School gym Saturday. It was quite the contrast to the more familiar sounds of cheering, stomping crowds reverberating over the steady bounce, bounce, bounce of a basketball, squeaks from athletic shoes interrupted by players shouting directions to each other.

Saturday, the sounds were different. This time, the crowd of nearly 600 filled the gym floor and visitors’ bleachers to say good-bye to Lt. Bret Miller, 30, an ETHS graduate, former star basketball player and successful Naval officer.

Miller died Oct. 28 while flying a training mission over the gulf coast of Texas. A search continues for Lt. Joe Houston of Houston who was also aboard the plane.

Miller’s flag-adorned casket lay in front of the home side bleachers surrounded by flowers, more flags and a basketball-shaped flower arrangement featuring Miller’s ETHS number 22.

Amid quiet chatter and occasional tears, the community came to support Miller’s family – his wife, Brianne; his son, Chase; his parents, Rick and Judy; his brother Chad and sister Tara Grocholski; his in-laws and friends.

The Rev. Maurice Lind of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, East Troy, directed his first words to Miller’s family: “I know that I speak for everyone here today when I say that our hearts ache…There are no words that can adequately say how much we hurt with you and for you.”

He also spoke to Miller’s friends from the Navy: “You have not only suffered the tragic death of one brother, but two.”

Lind offered words of comfort. “Bret is safe. He is OK…One day, you will see him again and you will be with him forever…That is the comfort that God has for you today even in the midst of your sorrow.”

Commander William J. Cox, Miller’s commanding officer, talked about Miller’s Naval life. “Lt. Miller was an outstanding Naval officer.

“Bret Miller left a legacy of friendship…and of mentorship.”

Cox read from a letter he wrote to Miller’s son, Chase, who is only about 2 years old. “I would like to share with you what I know of your father, so you can know your father.

“He was both a great Naval officer and Naval aviator.” More than that, Cox said, Miller was a man of integrity. “He was the type of man you knew you could trust.

“He always did the right thing, regardless of the consequences,” Cox said.

Cox talked about the reasons Miller chose to become a pilot and an instructor. “Bret
Miller loved to fly…Bret Miller loved instructing…and he had great success in this.

“Your father flew and risked his life every day because he loved his country.

“Your father was a patriot,” Cox said. “Your father died defending the United States of America.”

A friend of Miller’s from the military said, “Bret always set lofty goals for himself and he achieved them.

“But his greatest love was his family…He was a devoted family man, a patient father and a loyal husband.”

Another friend described Miller as “incredibly humble, selfless and loyal.” He talked about Miller’s smile: “He was an unbiased smile giver…it was infectious and could light up a room.”

Gary Grocholski, Miller’s brother-in-law, said, “His high school years were merely an audition for the life in front of him.

“I long for the 30 or 40 years of memories that now will never be,” Grocholski said. “I was fortunate that Bret called me on Tuesday, the day before his plane went down.” He said they talked for 20 minutes or so, and that Miller was excited that he and his wife, who is expecting a baby in March 2010, were going to have another boy.

Rick Penniston, ETHS principal, coached Miller from 1995 to 1997, when the school’s varsity team had two championship seasons.

Penniston said Miller was a four-year varsity starter. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

The gym suddenly came to life as a compilation of radio broadcasts from the Trojans’ winning seasons sounded through the speakers.

Penniston then talked about Miller’s exceptional skills, not only on the court but with his teammates as well. Because of this, Penniston said, the school decided to honor Miller’s memory by retiring Miller’s number 22.

He then invited two of Miller’s former teammates – Jim Chapman, ETHS Class of 1996, and Nathan Aldinger, who graduated from ETHS with Miller in 1997, to unveil Miller’s No. 22 basketball jersey. The jersey will hang in the hallway outside the ETHS gym in Miller’s memory.

A short time later, Lt. Bret Miller left the ETHS gym for the last time, surrounded by family and friends, as he always had been.

Miller was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, East Troy.

Posted in Articles

The ultimate gift: Injured veteran returns home

Interview and photo by Tedd Lupella

Written by: Christine Lupella

Jeremy’s arrival was a long time coming, but the timing was just right. After spending nearly a year in out-of-state hospitals and rehabilitation centers, Lance Corporal (LCPL) Jeremy Stengel, 22, came home to Waterford, Wis. on Dec. 8 – an early Christmas gift for the family and friends who visited him, stayed with him, and prayed for him.

Stengel, a Marine from the 2/3 Weapons Co. Map 1 Unit 44065, was on a mine sweep mission on Jan. 31 with several other soldiers in the Al Anbar Province in Iraq near Haditha, when their Humvee hit a roadside bomb. Two other soldiers who were in the Humvee died in the attack and Stengel was critically injured. The driver was also injured.

Stengel was flown to a hospital in Iraq, then to a hospital in Germany on Feb. 2. His family received word that he was on a ventilator and sedated. His injuries ranged from internal lacerations to a fractured lumbar – lower spine, extensive fractures to both legs, ankles and feet, and multiple wounds on his legs and heel.

Two days later, he was flown to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington D.C., where he would remain for a number of months undergoing multiple surgeries, experiencing fevers and infections, and slowly rehabilitating his body.

His parents, Greg and Gayle, took turns staying with him in the hospital, encouraging him on the bad days and celebrating the good. Other family members filled in at home in Waterford, caring for Jeremy’s younger siblings, Ethan and Jackie, or updating the Web site that kept friends, family and community members informed about Jeremy’s progress.

Ethan, 10, is especially delighted that Jeremy is home. The best part, he said, is “hanging out” with his older brother.

Their dad takes Jeremy to an area health club to work out.

“Things are coming along slowly,” Greg said of Jeremy’s progress.

Jeremy is still technically an active duty Marine, and still feels a special bond with his military family.

His platoon is back in the states for now, but will be de-ploying to Iraq again in January for another seven to nine months.

“I miss going out in the field with the guys, but it’s a nice break,” Jeremy said about being home in Waterford.

Both his family and his military family are Jeremy’s inspirations. Jeremy first became interested in serving when he saw the HBO Television series, “Band of Brothers.”

“Band of Brothers” is the story of Easy Company of the US Army 101st Airborne Di-vision and their mission in World War II.

Jeremy chose the Marines because “I had uncles and other family members that were in the Air Force and the Army, and I thought, why not the Marines? Then all the branches will be covered.”

Jeremy is not yet sure of his future plans. He knows he will be returning to Washington D.C. in early January for more therapy. He walks with a cane right now and hopes to continue building his strength.

“I’ll see how therapy goes,” he said. “The main thing is, I want to be able to do what I used to do.”

That includes golf and pickup games of basketball – and eventually, college.

Jeremy said people can help other soldiers by sending cards and letters and letting the soldiers know they are not forgotten. He received mail almost every day from his family, and he appreciated that, he said.

Stengel honored with Meritorious Service Medal

American Legion Post 20 of Waterford, Wis. presented Lance Corporal Jeremy Stengel of Waterford with a special award Dec. 17.

A welcome home and award ceremony was held in Stengel’s honor at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and school. A standing-room only crowd filled the school gymnasium to honor Stengel, who was injured while serving Iraq in January this year.

Legion Commander Jon McCourt presented Stengel with a Meritorious Service Medal and certificate. McCourt said this is the only American Legion award for active service members.

Stengel accepted the award and quietly said, “Everyone who prayed for me and my family, thank you for your support.”

Posted in Columns

Morning always comes

A little family stands in front of the cold, metallic gates that separate airline passengers from family and friends. They hold each other close, hearts melting together and dissolving in a pool of tears, their newborn daughter crying between them – an island of emotion among the hordes of people hurrying past. Moments later, the daddy, clad in Army fatigues, breaks away, heading through security and back to the desert that is thousands of miles away.

The mommy watched, holding their daughter close, until he disappeared into the crowd.

It may have been a scene from a movie – but last week, it was a scene from my daughter’s life. By virtue of having her stay with us during her husband’s deployment, it became a scene from her parents’ lives as well. We weren’t there when our son-in-law left for Iraq in August, since they are stationed 700 miles away in up-state New York.

But this time was different. We were there for it all. And it hurt.

The day before he left, we watched them turn inward, simply sharing their space, breathing the same air, exchanging few words – absorbed in the moment they seemed to want to freeze forever. My daughter said she desperately wanted to stay up all night, to talk or not talk as they felt like it. But the baby’s bi-hourly feedings and diaper changes fed into both of their exhaustion, and sleep inevitably took over, though not for long.

And though they hoped morning would never come, it did, and they were caught up in the flurry of last-minute details, packing his bag and checking for tickets and military orders while their dog trembled in a corner, knowing something wasn’t quite right but unable to express himself.

I felt just like the dog, watching and waiting and wondering what was next. We walked out to the car and I hugged my son-in-law, wishing him well, holding my breath and hoping this was all a dream. I held my breath more, walling the tears behind my eyelids and inside my throat until the car backed out of the driveway and headed down the road.

Then I cried – for my son-in-law, for my daughter, for their baby – for the dog. I cried for the thousands and thousands of other families who would repeat similar scenes all over the country as their soldiers headed out, either for their initial tour or to return from leave.

I wondered if I, as a 20-something-year-old new mom, could have been so brave. How is it possible that her father and I were responsible for raising a young woman who so quickly learned to be independent, to make major decisions, manage her family, be a mom and make sure her husband feels included in the process?

We have since dried our tears and begun to carry on, making sure the new daddy has a continuous flow of pictures and stories about his baby girl. Our daughter is making plans to return to their home in New York in a month or so, to get everything ready for his return in a couple of months. Soon, their separation will be over and they will be a family again.

How thankful I am for the brave men and women of the military. I am also thankful for their brave and wonderful families who say goodbye so often and “hold down the fort” at home, until the morning comes when their soldier returns.