Getting sworn into the Maryland Defense Force (MDDF) as a state guard soldier one evening in November 2011 was something I’ll never forget. This is Maryland’s state defense force. The MDDF is organized as a volunteer military organization, parallel to the Maryland National Guard, which it is designed to augment during stateside emergencies. Before getting into my journey with MDDF let me take you back to August 2011.
It was a summer day in August when I was with the Prince George’s County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). The CERT program trains citizens to prepare for emergency situations in their communities. When a disaster strikes, CERT members give critical support to first-responders, aid to victims, and organize spontaneous volunteers at a disaster site. So, on that sunny day, our group headed out to Baltimore County for a CERT Rodeo, with competing teams from other Maryland counties. When we arrived at the Baltimore County Fire Academy, I pulled together my own six-person team for the events. Throughout the day, my team was kicking butts, winning four awards. Later that day, three soldiers with the MDDF who were watching the events – a captain, staff sergeant, and a sergeant – talked with us. They told us about a special team they were putting together within MDDF’s Honor Guard. The unit would be doing search and rescue (SAR) for the state of Maryland. Since one of the components to CERT is SAR, that caught my interest.
Now back to the evening in November 2011 when I was sworn into the MDDF as a soldier, with the as a corporal with the honor guard team. Later that night I was given my welcome packet to the MDDF, with the guidelines, rules, and regulations, which followed Army customs. In reading the guidelines, I saw that it said female soldiers could not wear makeup, eye color, and nails that were painted. After I saw that I said to myself, “Let me out of here!” Well, that thought went out of my head real fast. No one knew that I was transgender, since all my paperwork had my new legal name. That included my passport (which I could use instead of my birth certificate) to join. I had to get a physical before next drill and the nice thing about doing that, I could see my own doctor.
At the next drill my Honor Guard Team started our training with wilderness first-aid and SAR training, along with honor guard training. I also had to go through initial entry training (IET), at the end of which I received the leadership award. After my first year with the MDDF in December 2012, at the holiday ball, I was awarded the Non-Commission Officer (NCO) Soldier of the Year Award. In November 2013, I received Soldier of the Year Award, given by the State Guard Association of the United States (SGAUS). After receiving these prestigious awards, I knew my work wasn’t done. I was now on a mission. My mission was that while receiving these awards both in 2012 and in 2013, a lot of the female soldiers were coming up to me saying, “Great job, you’re doing it for us”! Little did any of them know I was transgender. The comments were true I thought, but I am saying to myself, I am also doing it for the transgender community, which I couldn’t come out and say. During my time with the MDDF I served doing work in morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) as well as honor guard, and later was part of force protection (FP). I subsequently received my military emergency management specialist (MEMS) badge. I was then assigned to work in the Maryland Joint Operations Center (MJOC) at Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). When I had to stay at the barrack for the first time, I worried about the shower area. I came up with a game plan, which worked out well in case I wasn’t the only person in the shower. This is one of the main issues I feel that any trans soldier must worry about while serving due to no curtains around each shower head.
Over the next three years with the MDDF I have presented the flag at events and parades, while working FP. My team with FP received a commendation one drill for helping with an accident outside our gates in Baltimore.
On April 8th, 2016, I had vaginoplasty surgery, otherwise know in the trans community as surgical reassignment surgery (SRS) or genital reassignment surgery (GRS). Shortly after that date, on April 25th, ABC News released the interview they did with me called “A Transgender Soldier’s Personal Story”. (Tinyurl.com/y3q52lbh)
After the interview several of my fellow soldiers came up to me saying that they loved my interview and were in full support. Some of the soldiers were even saying, “You’re not only a good soldier, but you’re a good friend”. During my time with the MDDF I receive two promotions, retiring with the rank of staff sergeant. Serving with the MDDF was awesome due to the men and women I served with – my battle buddies – and who were also my friends. Later in January 2016, I retired from MDDF.
In the next article I will talk about the challenges and changes I have faced since my transition. Remember one thing … Shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll be among the stars! t
Reach the author at email@example.com or visit Kkholmes.com.
Karen Kendra Holmes works for the Federal Government as a Safety Officer. Besides her full- time job with the Federal Government she is a part-time radio host on WPFW 89.3 FM on the “Inside Out LGBTQ Show” on WPFW 89.3 FM. She also writes a column for Baltimore OUTloud under the column called “Trans Lives”. Karen received the Engendered Spirit Award from Capital Pride on June 7, 2018. She also was a TEDx Speaker with TEDx Asbury Park, NJ on May 19, 2018. In April 2017 she received the “2017 Monica Roberts Advocacy Award”. She was selected in January 2017 by LGBTQ Nation as one of the “Top 50 Successful Transgender Americans You Need to Know”. In May of 2015, she was honored in a special edition among 41 other women from around the world in The Platform Magazine, for up and inspiring females who have made a difference with their platform and inspired others with their positive values towards others. In April 2014 she received the “Willis Greene Community Service Award” and the “Unsung Hero Award-Team” by the Corporation for National & Community Service. In October 2013 she received “Soldier of the Year”, out of the country, by the State Guard Association of the United States out of 24 states and 23 thousand soldiers. In December 2012 she received “NCO Soldier of the Year” by the Maryland State Guard Association and The Maryland Defense Force. She was selected in August 2012 by The International Women’s Leadership Association, "A Woman of Outstanding Leadership in the Business Owner Division".
With the Maryland Defense Force under the Maryland National Guards she was a Staff Sergeant with Force Protection, the Chaplain’s Unit as a Chaplain’s Assistance, Honor Guard, and MWR. She has been doing volunteer work with the American Red Cross for the National Capital Region since 2009 on the Disaster Action Team. For several years, she has been volunteering with Community Emergency Response Team (CERTs) in Prince George's County, MD, and also with the Medical Reserve Corps. She sits on the board for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in Prince George's County, MD. Karen also use to sit on the board for DC Metro PFLAG working with the Transgender Community. She is now the chapter president of the Transgender Veterans Support Group (TVSG) for Maryland. Before Karen’s transitioned, she previously volunteered with the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission Park Police Prince George's County Division for 7 years, 5 of them as their President, and received several awards for her service, such as two Commander’s Awards and two Volunteer of the Year Awards. In December 2005 she received the Governor’s Crime Prevention Award for her outstanding work and leadership with Park Police Volunteer Association. She has her own side business called SafetyFirst DMV and is certified as an instructor through the National Safety Council (NSC). Karen believes whole heartedly in the importance of and Giving Back to her Community.