Sebastian Nemec. Photo courtesy of Sebastian Nemec
It’s been a decade since the U.S. military’s anti-LGBTQ+ policy was repealed.
For seventeen years, the Clinton Administration’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy gripped the U.S. military, prohibiting LGBTQ+ folx from serving in the armed forces. But a decade ago, in 2011, the Obama Administration repealed this discriminatory policy, opening the military to service members of all sexualities.
While many queer members of the U.S. military continue to face discrimination and adversity, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” showed that the military is working toward a more inclusive environment.
“I have been in the Minnesota Army National Guard since November 2011 as an enlisted service member,” says Sebastian Nemec. “My experience in the military has been fortunately positive and beneficial. Not all queer and transgender people have this experience. I’m grateful for the leadership I’ve had throughout my career that has supported me.”
Nemec says he originally joined the military when he was just seventeen years old to gain a unique experience and to help pay for school. “I’ve stayed in because of the financial and health benefits, the job security, and the people I’ve worked with,” he says.
Joining the military is a big commitment, and Nemec emphasizes that it is a decision that will impact you for the rest of your life; certainly a big decision to make when you’re just a teenager.
“It is also a different process for joining for transgender people. I can only speak about my experience as a Minnesota Army National Guard soldier,” Nemec adds. “I know of many queer and trans service members serving in various branches and components (a component is Active duty/Reserves/National Guard). Each of these have their own pros and cons. I believe that the military can be a beneficial experience that can lead people to paths in life that they otherwise wouldn’t have. It is such an important and impactful decision that is specific to each individual.”
Nemec says being in the military has ingrained discipline, integrity, resilience, and leadership in him, traits that he passes on to others as a holistic business coach for queer and trans folx.
“Each of these is important in business, and I encourage my clients to incorporate these traits into their lives as well. I don’t pull directly from my military experience when working with clients, but rather general lessons learned,” he says. “I look forward to working with queer and trans veterans in the future and feel that I have a unique perspective and experience to serve them from.”
Nemec says he wishes more people realized that there are a lot more queer and trans folx who have served, are currently serving, and have the desire to serve than society realizes.
“As the younger generations become queerer, so does the U.S. military,” he says. “The queer community is composed of people from all walks of life, and so is the military.”
Like Nemec, Ashley Preiss has had a positive experience in the U.S. military.
“I am currently still in the military. I enlisted in December of 2015 and plan on being here until they kick me out,” Preiss says. “My job is Airfield Management and in this job we are responsible for the maintenance of runways, lighting and other airfield components and systems. We ensure that all takeoffs and landings can proceed without incident. On paper the job seems as if it would be boring, but it is far from it. Within this job you are constantly working with people from all over your base, all over the country, and sometimes even with people from all over the world. The biggest perk of this job, which you cannot always find with military jobs, is I can retire out of the military and easily be hired as a civilian at many airports all over the world.”
Luckily, Preiss has not had one bad experience in the military so far. “My experience in the military so far has been exquisite, honestly. I have not once had a bad experience. I have gotten to travel, I am continually learning something new, and the brothers and sisters who I serve with continually push me to be the best Airmen I can be. Not only am I learning how to be proficient in a job that relates to the outside world, I am learning how to be a leader and I am gaining lifelong quality friendships,” she says.”
For Preiss, joining the military was a fairly obvious decision to make, as her father and both sets of grandfathers were in the Army. “Since I was a kid I always had the idea of being in the military. My father was in the Army when I was younger and both sets of my grandfathers were in the Army. It was something I had been around and knew I liked it. I have always been passionate about physical fitness and the military helped fuel that passion. I enlisted my senior year of college and went off to basic training and tech school after I graduated from college,” she adds.
“I actually have never had a challenging time in my career because I am a part of the LGBTQ+ community. I have always been open about who I am and if there are people I serve with that don’t like who I am then I have no more time to waste on them. I have never had any issues with my leadership, everyone has been very respectful, and one of my Commanders is actually a part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Preiss adds. “If there ever became an issue, that is why we have the Equal Opportunity (EO) office and the Inspector Generals (IG) office. I have found that if you work hard, you are a quality Armed Forces member, and you serve to protect your country, most of the people we serve with do not care how you identify yourself. Those who do care how you identify yourself have no means to be within our Armed Forces and they are being weeded out.”
Since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed ten years ago, Preiss says the military has been continually trying to be more accepting of everyone.
“There are trainings to make people aware about different cultures, races, sexual orientations, religious affiliations, etc.,” she says. “If we are separated from within, we will never be successful at keeping our country safe. The military as a whole identifies that and is making every effort to bring us together as one.”
“The military is continually trying to better itself in accepting ALL people. There are continual trainings of making people aware about different cultures, race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc. If we are separated from within, we will never be successful at keeping our country safe. The military as a whole identifies that and is making every effort to bring us together as one,” Preiss says.
Major Melanie Nelson, public affairs officer for the Minnesota National Guard, says that the organization prioritizes the diversity of its members by encouraging people from all backgrounds to help create the future of the National Guard.
“The National Guard firmly values the principles of diversity and inclusion and continues to lead American society in maximizing the potential of future leaders from all backgrounds. Diversity makes the National Guard better and more equipped to meet the challenges and threats of the future. We continue to cultivate a climate of trust and respect to allow every Soldier and Airman to thrive and achieve their full potential,” Nelson says.
According to a 2019 news story from the Minnesota National Guard by Master Sergeant Blair Heusdens, women make up nearly 20 percent of the Minnesota National Guard and are able to serve in all positions in the organization, and the Guard continues to strive to become a more inclusive environment for everyone—particularly LGBTQ+ folx and women.
“Among those things the Minnesota National Guard continues to work towards is the inclusion of women into previously excluded combat positions and improving the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program,” Heusdens shares.
Not only has diversity and inclusion benefitted the members of the National Guard, but it has also made the National Guard stronger as a whole.
“The strength of the Minnesota National Guard is in the diversity of experiences and skill sets our Soldiers and Airmen bring to the table. As a collective team of unique individuals, we can tackle any problem and accomplish any mission set,” according to Sergeants Sydney Mariette and Ben Houtkooper.
“This past year our teamwork was on display as our Soldiers and Airmen responded time and time again to help our communities battle the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to civil unrest. That teamwork is built on a foundation of trust, dignity and mutual respect. Our service members must feel valued and they must feel safe,” they say.
“Although our Soldiers and Airmen serve honorably and live by our core values, we must be ever-vigilant to ensure extremism does not creep into our ranks. Extremist behavior we must guard against in our formation includes racism, discrimination and extreme political and religious views,” Mariette and Houtkooper add. “Extremist ideologies undermine the oath we all took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And they destroy the unit cohesion needed to build strong teams. We all have a role in stopping extremism. Help us by reporting concerning actions to your chain of command.”
Today, the Department of Defense offers a stand-down training materials to address extremism as one of the initial steps in support of the memo directing commanding officers and supervisors at all levels to conduct a one-day “stand-down.” The training materials provide services and components information on training and facilitated discussions to address the issues of extremist ideology within the ranks.
The overall goal of the sixty-day stand down has not been about collecting information from the force, but rather, to reiterate to the force something they all heard the first day of their military or civilian service: the commitment they made to the U.S. military, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said during a briefing.
“It was meant to do two things: to reinforce our values and, specifically, the importance of the oath that everyone takes here to the Constitution and what that oath requires of you,” Kirby told reporters. “There are active verbs in that oath that matter. And it was a chance to revisit what we’ve all promised to do, and what we’ve all promised to serve.”
Right now, Kirby said, the defense department doesn’t have an idea about the scope of an extremism problem in the ranks. He said the service knows it’s a problem greater than zero, but also likely not one that’s as large as what some speculate.
“We don’t have a perfect understanding of the scope of it,” he added. “I think we want to get a better sense of it and the stand down was just a first step in doing that … It’s just a first step — not meant to be a panacea, not meant to solve all the problems — just to reorient everybody to the importance of service to this country in the Defense Department and the chance to listen to them.”
“We owe it to the country … the taxpayers that fund us and support us, to get a better sense of this,” Kirby said. “The secretary has said, every time he talks about this, that the vast majority … are serving this country, whether they’re military or civilian, contractor or in uniform — they’re serving this country with honor and character and dignity, they uphold the values that we espouse, they certainly uphold their oath to the constitution.”
When the extremism stand downs are complete, and the services have confirmed that to the department, what the next steps will be is unclear at this time. What is very clear, Kirby said, is that there will be follow-on efforts.
“I think you will see the secretary make some decisions about how he wants to approach this going forward,” he said. “He wants this to be considered an ongoing enduring leadership issue and I think you’ll see that reflected in whatever decisions he makes.”
As Indigenous groups and other environmental activists have been putting their lives on the line to protest the Enbridge Line 3, which crosses from Alberta, Canada, through Minnesota, to Superior, Wisconsin, destroying Native lands, food, and water along the way, the Minnesota National Guard has also made its voice heard on behalf of the planet.
On March 22, World Water Day, the Minnesota National Guard recognized the necessity of water to our homes, our health, the environments we live in, and to the world as a whole.
“In Minnesota, we are fortunate to have an abundance of clean water. The Mississippi River Headwaters boasts the highest water quality in our nation,” wrote Anthony Housey for the Minnesota National Guard. “Nearly two million Minnesotans rely on the river as a source of drinking water, from St. Cloud to the greater seven-county metro area including Minneapolis and St. Paul. Boasted as ‘The Land of 10,000 Lakes,’ the outdoor recreation and tourism add $16 billion to Minnesota’s economy. Our freshwater resources are a true treasure and something we need to cherish, conserve and celebrate.”
Camp Ripley is located at the confluence of the Crow Wing and Mississippi Rivers. There are more than eighteen miles of undeveloped shoreline bordering our National Guard Training Center in Central Minnesota. Additionally, Camp Ripley’s Sentinel Landscape encompasses and protects four tributaries of the Upper Mississippi River watershed, Housey wrote.
According to Housey, since 2014, overall water usage at Camp Ripley as well as across the Minnesota National Guard’s sixty-one different communities have shown a steady downward trend in water use. The decrease in potable water use and increase in recycled water use at the installation’s wash rack have proven their worth over the past few training years.
“Practical improvements to systems widely used by units and organizations during training are a big priority for us. It will benefit us in the long run fiscally and environmentally. All this applies to our triple bottom line: mission, environment, and the community which are paramount to success in sustainable infrastructure and design for the Minnesota National Guard,” said Jay Brezinka, Environmental Program Manager with the MN Department of Military Affairs.
From the environment to women to the LGBTQ+ community, the Minnesota National Guard is making its mission clear: It is advocating for a future that is better—more diverse and more inclusive—than the past.