Grounded: Transgender Naval Aviator’s Quest To Return to Service

In 2010, U.S. Navy aviator LCDR Brynn Tannehill made the very personal and arduous decision to begin the gender transition process. Like other service members dealing with acute medical concerns, she entered the Individual Ready Reserve until she was ready to return to service.

former U.S. Navy aviator LCDR Brynn Tannehill

‘I still dream about flying all the time,’ says Tannehill. ‘I fought the good fight and I lost.’ [Courtesy: Brynn Tannehill]

Editor’s Note: In 2010, U.S. Navy aviator Lt. Cmdr. Brynn Tannehill made the very personal and arduous decision to begin the gender transition process. Like other service members dealing with acute medical concerns, she entered the Individual Ready Reserve until she was ready to return to service. While in the IRR, however, she was considered to have failed to be selected for promotion twice for O-5 (Commander). This prompted her separation from the Navy in June  2017 at the 20-year up-or-out mark, forcing an end to her military aviation career. 

Tannehill was later offered a path to return to the cockpit as a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot for the California Army National Guard, which was in need of pilots to help combat wildfires in the state. The blemish of timing out through two-time non-selection in the IRR on her military record, however, became a barrier to her service in the National Guard, despite an impeccable service record, high-level clearances, and personal endorsements from members of Congress, a former undersecretary of defense, the assistant adjutant general of the California National Guard, the major general serving as the special assistant to the secretary of the army for manpower and reserve affairs, and California Governor Gavin Newsom.

In late 2020, she appealed to have her military record expunged, citing that "it has been demonstrated that my non-selection for O-5 was ultimately due to discrimination based on gender identity." The window for an appeal, however, is nearly closed.

She recently spoke with FLYING about her experience and love of flying. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for space and clarity.

I was deeply, deeply in the closet. This is right around the 9/11 time frame. I was kind of even in the closet to myself. I was still presenting as male. 

My life was coming apart because the untreated gender dysphoria was affecting me and my family a lot. Imagine if you had chronic back pain, and it was just excruciating, and you found yourself snapping at your spouse and snapping at your kid, and you're just desperately unhappy and miserable. But the choice was between getting surgery to alleviate the back pain, even if your employer said if you take time off to get your back taken care of, you're fired. At some point, you would say to yourself, you know what, it's worth losing my job rather than losing my family and living in constant agony.

That's kind of the best analogy I can give.

I had gone into the Individual Ready Reserve in 2010 to start my transition, and I legally transitioned in early 2012. The IRR was set up for people who are in the reserves or go to the reserves, who want to be able to come back, but they're having some kind of acute medical problem. I used it the way it was supposed to be used. It actually worked against me. I'd have been better off if I left the Navy entirely. So I tried to use the system the way it was intended, and it bit me in the ass. 

Sorry, I still swear like a sailor.

I lost both my jobs. I had to give up my spot in the reserves and I got "laid off" from a defense contractor, which is ironic because the instant I came out, all my work dried up. 

Was it worth it? Well, I guess so. I've still got my family. I've still got my kids. But, there was a heavy price to pay for it. It cost me an opportunity to go back to doing the job I loved the most, the job that I've wanted since I was 6 years old while growing up next to Luke Air Force Base [in Arizona]. 

My mom was a teacher out there. In the mornings, back when it was a training base for F-15As, I watched the F-15s doing formation max power climbouts at dawn, in the cool morning desert air in the fall. Sixty feet of blue and orange flame shooting out the back, rumbling and making noises that you can just feel your chest reverberating from the most powerful fighter jets in the world. And I got a front row seat, just off the runway.

All I ever wanted was to fly. That's why I fought for years to put up a path for trans people to serve in the military.

I still dream about flying all the time. It's been hard, you know. I fought the good fight and I lost.

I tried to get back in and the timing did not work out. The short version is that I got stuck in the Individual Ready Reserve, and they didn't create a pathway to get back in until it was too late [for me]. Now it's proved impossible for me to get back in even when I had a billet waiting for me with the California National Guard to go fly Black Hawks in a critically undermanned billet. 

And I had support from the governor of California, and the assistant adjutant general of the California National Guard lobbying for me, but I never got to get back in the cockpit after I left to transition.

That's one of my life's great regrets is that I never got a chance to be in the cockpit again, as much as I loved it. And as much as they need Black Hawk pilots.

They would rather stand on bureaucracy, than take back in somebody who's got 1,250 hours to go fly for the Army National Guard. They cannot produce them fast enough to catch up on how far they are behind on pilots. From my perspective, I'm manna from heaven. I'm an experienced pilot who says, "Hey, I'll go fly for you for free," if that's what it takes.

It's always hard when people in the military discover that you love the system way more than the system will ever love you.

I'm on the process of, probably within weeks, of exhausting my administrative remedies [through appeal], but I'm coming up on the maximum age that I could be to get back in. So I think a legal challenge would probably be moot because I'm too old. Basically, I think what would happen if we took it to court is by the time the court dealt with it, the military would just turn around and say, well, she's too old anyway. And the court would throw out the case.

There's not a lot of people caught in my situation. If the dates changed, even a little bit…like if we had an open trans service a year earlier, we wouldn't be having this problem. If [former President Donald] Trump hadn't gotten elected, I probably would have found a way to get back in, or get back into the Naval Reserves or something. It's just a matter of bad luck, bad timing, and a system that's completely inflexible.

Going back to a time when LGBT people weren't allowed to serve just inflicts needless misery on service members, families, and it deprives the service of people that they desperately need. 

The Army desperately needs pilots. And guess what? Here's a pilot who's medically fit and can't get back in the cockpit. It doesn't benefit our military to exclude people who desperately want to be there and to do their jobs.

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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