By Michael Chen, KGTV
(KGTV) – It's a first in the history of the military, as the Pentagon officially recognized a local Navy veteran's change of gender.
Born a male, Autumn Sandeen said as a teen, she identified as a female.
She joined the Navy, lived as male and kept her secret for two decades before retiring.
"If I would have been myself, I would have been kicked out," said Sandeen.
According to military guidelines, gender identity issues are a mental disorder and detrimental to good order and discipline.
In 2011, as the ban on gays and lesbians was lifted, the transgender ban remained.
"The best way to explain it is I felt like a bridesmaid, never a bride," said Sandeen.
Twenty months later, a step down the aisle toward acceptance.
"I felt tremendous, like I accomplished something, not just himself, but for the broader transgender community," said Sandeen. FULL POST
By Chris Lawrence, with reporting from Barbara Starr, CNN
(CNN) –The U.S. military is ending its policy of excluding women from combat and will open combat jobs and direct combat units to female troops, CNN has learned. Multiple officials confirm to CNN that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make the announcement tomorrow and notify Congress of the planned change in policy.
“We will eliminate the policy of ‘no women in units that are tasked with direct combat,’” a senior defense official says.
But the officials caution that “not every position will open all at once on Thursday.” Once the policy is changed, the Department of Defense will enter what is being called an “assessment phase,” in which each branch of service will examine all of its jobs and units not currently integrated and then produce a timetable in which it can integrate them.
The Army and Marine Corps, especially, will be examining physical standards and gender-neutral accommodations within combat units. Every 90 days, the service chiefs will have to report back on their progress.
The move will be one of the last significant policy decisions made by Panetta, who is expected to leave in mid-February. It is not clear where former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the nominated replacement, stands, but officials say he has been apprised of Panetta's coming announcement.
“It will take awhile to work out the mechanics in sRead the full post on CNN's Security Clearance blog
By Adam Cohen, Special to Time.com
(TIME) - When Major Mary Jennings Hegar was serving as a captain in Afghanistan her aircraft was shot down by enemy fire while she and her crew were evacuating injured soldiers. Though injured by a bullet that penetrated the helicopter, she completed the rescue mission while under fire on the ground — and received the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for “outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty.”
One thing Hegar, who has served three tours in Afghanistan, did not do: get credit for serving in combat. It is illegal for women to be in official combat positions — and to get the benefits that come with them. Hegar and three other service women filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco last week in a long overdue challenge to the Pentagon’s nonsensical and unconstitutional ban.
Women have always served in the military (and have lost their lives,) but Congress and the Pentagon have put an array of restrictions on them. In 1988, the military adopted the “risk rule,” which allowed women to be kept out of even non-combat positions if they were likely be put at risk of being fired on or captured. In 1994, it dropped the risk rule, but Defense Secretary Les Aspin adopted the current ban on women in official ground combat positions, after a poll had showed weak public support for allowing women to volunteer for combat.
Many military women — who are 14% of the 1.4 million active military — object to the policy because it blocks them from applying for some 238,000 jobs and excludes them from certain promotions. This is particularly unfair because the ban doesn’t actually protect women in service. Fully 85% of women who have served since Sept. 11, 2001 report having served in a combat zone or an area where they received combat or imminent danger pay, according to the lawsuit, and half reported being involved in combat operations. At least 860 female troops have been wounded and 144 killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.Read Adam Cohen's full column
By the CNN Wire Staff
(CNN) - Four servicewomen who have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan filed a suit against the Defense Department Tuesday challenging the military's longstanding policy against women in ground combat.
Some of the plaintiffs led female troops who went on missions with combat infantrymen, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the women.
"Their careers and opportunities have been limited by a policy that does not grant them the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts," the ACLU said. "The combat exclusion policy also makes it harder for them to do their jobs."FULL STORY
By Randi Kaye and Scott Bronstein, CNN
Phoenix (CNN) - Mike Rioux can't go to the grocery store without making a list, even for a single item.
He can't drive without gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles turn white. And he can't stand any longer than 30 minutes because of severe back pain.
This is Rioux's life after Afghanistan, where firefights and a roadside bomb blast left him with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
His ears still ring from the explosions. He suffers from vertigo, headaches, insomnia and nightmares. He has terrible anxiety, evident in an interview with CNN - Rioux could hardly sit still, and his memory loss and inability to concentrate meant questions had to be repeated at times.
"I need to discover who I am again," he said.
As a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, Rioux most recently was deployed in 2010 to one of the most dangerous spots in Afghanistan. There he survived firefights and blasts and witnessed much carnage in Paktia province, near the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border.
After returning home, Rioux faced a much different battle, one that neither he nor his wife, Maggie, expected.
Confusion is 'monumental'
The Department of Veterans Affairs said it is on track to process 1 million disability claims this year.
With the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, the VA is sorting through a backlog of more than 860,000 disability claims from American veterans. More than a quarter of those vets - 228,000 - have been waiting for a year or more.FULL STORY
By Tom Cohen, CNN
(CNN) - Amid solemn commemorations on Tuesday's 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Barack Obama and other leaders emphasized how America has emerged stronger from the devastation that killed more than 2,900 people and forever changed the nation and the world.
"This anniversary allows us to renew our faith that even the darkest night gives way to the dawn," Obama said at the Pentagon, where 184 people died when one of four hijacked planes slammed into the iconic building symbolizing U.S. military might.
"As painful as this day is and always will be, it leaves us with a lesson that no single event can ever destroy who we are, no act of terrorism can ever change what we stand for," Obama said, adding: "When the history books are written, the true legacy of 9/11 will not be one of fear or hate or division. It will be a safer world, a stronger nation, and a people more united than ever before."
Earlier, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stood with heads bowed and hands clasped on the White House lawn to observe a moment of silence at the exact time the first hijacked plane hit New York's World Trade Center in 2001.
White House staff stood in quiet observance on the grass behind them as a lone bugler played "Taps."
By Rusty Dornin, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Roberto and Amanda Melecio share many of the same nightmares.
They don't like crowds, rarely trust anyone and both suffer serious bouts of depression. Married since 2005, they are both Iraq War veterans, and each has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
When Amanda Melecio came back from Iraq in 2005, she struggled to be the person she once was. "When I came home I couldn't socialize," Melicio says. "I have a lot of anxiety."
Her husband Roberto served as a scout and an Army combat engineer and disarmed bombs. "I was a human bulletproof vest," he jokes. He rarely sleeps and suffers from horrific nightmares. He struggles with his temper.
"We're not the normal couple. My wife and I are a rare breed." he says. "We happened to meet in the war."
While studies show women in the general population are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress as men, the rates for returning veterans are about the same - 20% for both men and women.
"We're definitely seeing more duel PTSD cases with returning vets," says Candice Monson, a clinical expert on how post-traumatic stress disorder affects couples. "It's largely a product of the changing policy of women in the military. While women are not supposed to be in combat, the reality is they are."
By Tom Cohen, CNN
(CNN) - When Wisconsin temple gunman Wade Michael Page arrived at Fort Bragg in 1995, the sprawling Army base in North Carolina already was home to a small number of white supremacists including three soldiers later convicted in the murder of an African-American couple.
The killings launched a military investigation that tightened regulations against extremist activity, but some say such influences persist in today's armed forces.
"Outside every major military installation, you will have at least two or three active neo-Nazi organizations actively trying to recruit on-duty personnel," said T.J. Leyden, a former white power skinhead in the U.S. Marines who now conducts anti-extremism training.
Page died in a shootout with police responding to his attack Sunday on a Sikh temple in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Hill that killed six people and wounded four, including a police officer.
He had ties to white supremacist groups and the FBI acknowledges it knew of him, though no formal investigation ever took place.
According to Pete Simi, a University of Nebraska criminologist who knew Page, the military experience at Fort Bragg helped instill Page's allegiance to the white power movement.
By Maria LaMagna, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Things probably should have turned out differently for Samantha Schilling.
The stories she tells have dark beginnings and could have had, under different circumstances, dark endings - as so many stories for those in the military do.
Schilling, now 31, served in the U.S. Navy from 1999 to 2003. She was never deployed but worked as an information systems technician at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.
Several of her friends were killed during the 2000 al Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, which left 17 dead and at least 37 injured. Some of the injured were transferred to her base in Norfolk.
Many of the survivors suffered from mental trauma after the bombing. One of them, a man who had been aboard the ship, attacked Schilling and attempted to rape her.
That assault drove home the impact that active duty had on her colleagues' mental state.