SAN DIEGO -- For what is being called the first time in U.S. military history, the Pentagon officially has recognized a Navy veteran's change of gender.
Born a male, Autumn Sandeen said as a teen, she felt, on the inside, that she was a woman. She joined the Navy, lived as a man and kept her secret for two decades before retiring.
''If I would have been myself, I would have been kicked out," Sandeen said recently.
According to military guidelines, gender identity issues have been categorized as a mental disorder and detrimental to good order and discipline. Those who openly identify with the opposite sex or cross-dress are banned from enlisting.
Military regulations say cross-dressing can be grounds for court-martial. Critics say having transgender troops could be a major distraction and bad for morale. 'Critics of allowing gays in the military made the same arguments. But even as the military's ban on gays and lesbians was lifted in 2011, the transgender ban remained. After Sandeen left the service, she resolved to battle that rule.
''The best way to explain it is I felt like a bridesmaid, never a bride," Sandeen said, who said that even as a teen she felt trapped in the wrong body.
She appealed to the Department of Veterans Affairs, then the Pentagon. She submitted a mountain of paperwork, including a revised birth certificate. Twenty months later, she took a giant step down the aisle toward acceptance when the VA allowed her to officially change her identity from male to female.
''I felt tremendous, like I accomplished something, not just for (myself), but for the broader transgender community,"Sandeen said.
Sandeen said the recognition of a veteran's gender change forces the question: why shouldn't an active service member be able to change as well? One thing suddenly helping her cause: as of mid-May 2013, psychiatric manuals no longer classify gender identity issues as a mental disorder.
''I feel like we should able to serve openly because we are physically able to serve openly. It's not a disorder," she said. "We're not allowing capable people who have something to offer the country to serve their country."
An advocacy group estimated there could be as many as 300,000 transgender military veterans. Seven other countries allow transgender troops.
Sandeen has undergone hormone treatment and now lives as a woman. A few years ago, she bought a female uniform for photos so she could be remembered for who she was and not for who others thought she was.
''I am really proud of my military service," she said.
(Michael Chen is a reporter for Scripps station KGTV-TV in San Diego. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)