Transgender Iowan deploys to Hurricane Irma despite president’s ban

A native of the California Bay Area, the ocean is a source of respite, she said, and its waves offer her an almost spiritual rejuvenation.


But Thomas also is well aware of the ocean’s fury. Like many, she watched in horror when the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina and water flooded neighborhoods, forcing people to await rescue on roofs and highway overpasses.

Witnessing the desperation and the kindness of strangers that followed in the path of Katrina — as it does so most disasters —Thomas made a decision.

When she got the chance, she would be one of the rescuers reaching a hand to people on roofs and highway overpasses. In the glow of CNN’s 24-hour Katrina coverage, Thomas vowed to join the U.S. Coast Guard.

In 2011, she made good on that vow, entering the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a civilian volunteer force, and working her way up to flotilla commander, which, she said, is roughly equivalent to the rank of lieutenant.

On Thursday, Thomas got her opportunity to be one of those good Samaritans when she shipped out to Coast Guard District 8 headquarters in New Orleans.

She’s working with fellow Coast Guard members to prepare and coordinate search and rescue efforts in response to Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest storms recorded in Atlantic waters, which could make landfall in Florida as early as this weekend.


Thomas, 59, a transgender woman and activist, deployed in the wake of President Trump’s much-reported ban on transgender people serving in the military.

Despite being housed under the Department of Homeland Security instead of the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard was not immune from the ban, which President Trump first announced in a series of early morning tweets in July.

“After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military,” Trump tweeted, announcing the rollback of President Barack Obama’s 2016 directive that transgender troops be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”

While it’s difficult to know exactly how many transgender troops are in the military, a 2016 analysis estimated that out of the 1.3 million active-duty service people, about 2,500 troops identify as transgender.

Soon after Trump issued an executive order officially confirming his ban of transgender troops Aug. 26, Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a statement the department would “develop a study and implementation plan” to “carry out the president’s policy direction.”

While this plan is developed, transgender troops are allowed to continue serving, Mattis said.


Thomas — who began transitioning in 2003 — said she “would be less than honest” if she didn’t admit that the ban was on her mind when she made herself available to respond to the disasters of the last few weeks.

But just a few days before deploying, she was focused “very intently” on the mission at hand.

“When I’m on a search-and-rescue mission, the job of rescuing people in distress comes absolutely first,” she said. “I’m not individually concerned with who you voted for or where you go to church. My only concern is that you are in trouble and that I have the skills — and my organization has the skills — to do something about saving your life.”

Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, was one of first in the military to speak out against the ban on transgender troops, saying during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that his office contacted the 13 Coast Guard service members who identify as transgender after the president’s tweets.

He said he reached out directly to Lt. Taylor Miller, the branch’s first openly transitioning officer.

“I reached out personally to Lt. Taylor Miller, who was featured on the cover of The Washington Post last week,” he said. “Now, if you read that story, Taylor’s family has disowned her. Her family is the U.S. Coast Guard. And I told Taylor, ‘I will not turn my back. We have made an investment in you, and you have made an investment in the Coast Guard, and I will not break faith.'”

Thomas, who stressed that she speaks only for herself, ventured that with that statement, Adm. Zukunft “earned a tremendous amount of respect” from his service members.

“Not that I didn’t respect him already, but my estimation of the man went up tenfold,” she said.

In my interaction with the Coast Guard, I’ve seen that we represent America in every way, shape and form, and that we understand that diversity is our strength,” she said. “To us, diversity is not a buzz word — it is a commitment.”

On the day Trump’s ban hit the internet, Thomas was at a class on advanced cardiovascular life support at Mercy Medical Center.

An architect by day, Thomas is an Iowa-licensed EMT with specific training in pre-hospital trauma life support and advanced medical life support, she said.

She was in the middle of the multi-day training when the president launched his tweets, but she concentrated on the lesson’s end results, which she hoped to put to use in her role with the Coast Guard.

Now, it seems, she’ll get her opportunity.

And while, as a transgender person, she wants to continue to serve, whatever controversy the ban whipped up is far from her mind, she said.

They’ll be a time to talk about that. But at the moment, she is focused on the mission.


“Regardless of the feelings I have with respect to the president’s determinations, the president is the top of my org chart,” she said. “I’m cognizant of that relationship and the office of the president and I give it the respect that is commensurate with that position.”

“My personal feelings are really just that: personal. And, right now, there is no time to entertain those. I have a job to do, and I’m being counted on to do it.”

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