As the military struggles with policies for transgender service members, it wasn’t long ago that gays and women weren’t welcome in combat.
U.S. Army veteran Emily Miller was there. She was on the front lines for both issues.
Miller was a sophomore at the United States Military Academy at West Point when she realized she was gay. At the time, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” forced Miller to hide her true self and she only came out to close family and friends.
After graduation, Miller served a deployment in Iraq as an engineer platoon leader as her unit oversaw reconstruction work in Basra. She was then selected to serve on two deployments to Afghanistan as a member of a Cultural Support Team with a Special Operations task force attached to the 75th Ranger Regiment.
“It was a brilliant program that Special Operations created. They saw a need for women out on the battlefield,” Miller said. “And they were realizing that these all-male, special operations teams couldn’t talk to the Afghan women and children. It was culturally inappropriate.”
These teams were able to build rapport with the Afghan women and get information about what was happening in their villages.
In these villages, “the women really know what’s going on. And for a long time, for over a decade while we were at war, about 50 percent of the population, the women and children, were largely ignored until the Cultural Support Team program came into place,” she said. “It was a huge benefit to the teams that we worked with.”
Though it was not the intention of the program, these Cultural Support Team members were able to prove that women could serve alongside Special Forces units.
“When you train us and equip us, we’re able to do the same mission as the men,” Miller said. “We’re carrying the same weight, we’re carrying the same gear, we are running the same distance to the target as the men. And so I think that was a really valuable insight that came from the CST program.”
Miller was serving her country well by helping to accomplish the needs of military missions. But after her first deployment, she became aware of how the policy of DADT was negatively affecting her.
“When I was in Iraq, I really couldn’t talk about my personal life. I couldn’t talk about my partner. I was always worried about the kind of emails I was sending,” she said. “And so that’s really what kicked me into gear and got me involved speaking out against the policy itself.”
“My work with OutServe was pretty fascinating because we were trying to build underground networks of all the LGBT service members across the world at all the bases,” she said.
Service members were writing articles, doing media appearances and sharing their stories.
“But really doing everything we could from an anonymous perspective to get the word out that we were there, we were actively serving, we were deployed, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a really harmful policy,” she added.
Miller was still in the Army when DADT was repealed in 2011. She said “it almost didn’t feel real.”
When reflecting on her military service, Miller said she thinks about how she had the opportunity to see the repeal of DADT and being one of the first women to serve on the front lines with special operations troops.
“And both experiences really hit home for me that it’s all about meeting the standards and getting the mission done,” she said. “And that diverse teams make for stronger teams.”
After the repeal, she came out to friends and colleagues, and they were very supportive.
“Nothing changed,” Miller said. “The very next day it was business as usual, which is exactly what I had hoped it would be.”
Miller agreed that the military is about the team and the mission, and not focusing on the differences among the service members.
“That’s why I have such a love for the military,” she said, “and such a fondness looking back, because I don’t know of any other organization that brings together such a diverse group of people.”
Since getting out in 2013, Miller received an MBA from Harvard Business School and co-founded the company Rumi Spice with her best friend and fellow West Point classmate Kimberly Jung.
In the next five years, Miller said that “whatever it is that I’m doing, I hope it’s empowering women and I hope it has something to do with post-conflict zones. Those are really the areas I hope to make a difference in the world.”
In partnership with the Service Women’s Action Network, we are featuring an inspiring woman veteran each month. Check out our last featured veteran: Brooke Jones-Chinett.