Transgender Offutt airman – finally 'able to live as my true self' – finds support, acceptance during transition
For years Ashleigh Buch hid the fact that she was transgender. The Offutt airman reported to work each day as a man, telling colleagues little about her life. Off the base, in her Omaha apartment, above, she lived as a woman, donning wigs over the hair she kept trimmed short. But as part of a wave of social change to hit the military, the Air Force instructor’s days of appearing one way at work and another at home are over. STORY BY STEVE LIEWER | PHOTOS BY SARAH HOFFMAN | THE WORLD-HERALD
In front of an Offutt classroom of young airmen, Staff Sgt. Ashleigh Buch is a dynamo. She laughs and jokes as she mentors students fresh out of language school, teaching them about the demanding work of an RC-135 reconnaissance crew member. Her students are new linguists whose jobs involve listening to communications during overseas surveillance missions. Buch’s also a busy social director for her squadron — president of the unit’s booster club and chair of the Women’s History Month commemoration.
Staff Sgt. Ashleigh Buch, an instructor with the 338th Combat Training Squadron, in January at Offutt Air Force Base. Last June a new Department of Defense policy was finalized that allows transgender service members to serve openly. Buch is the first Offutt Air Force Base airman to transition under the new policy.
“She means the world to this unit,” said Lt. Col. David “Bo” Rice, the 338th Combat Training Squadron commander. But until last fall, Buch reported to work as a shy, stressed man. For years, Buch hid the fact that she was transgender — a group of people who, until last summer, could be legally excluded from serving in the military. On Monday through Friday, she donned her olive-drab flight suit and worked as a male airman at Offutt, her hair trimmed short, answering to the boy’s name her parents gave her at birth. She was reserved, telling colleagues little about her life. Nights and weekends, she pulled out her skinny jeans, a cute top and ankle booties and headed out with friends to Lalibela Ethiopian restaurant for dinner or to hang out at Culprit, a downtown bakery, for brunch. “It was always a very difficult thing, being constantly on guard,” Buch said in an interview. “It was a really scary time.” Those years of appearing male at work while living as a woman at home are over. In October, Buch, 32, switched her gender from “male” to “female” in the Air Force’s personnel records system, reflecting changes already made to her birth certificate and passport. In so doing, she became the first Offutt Air Force Base airman to transition under the Defense Department’s new policy, finalized last June, allowing transgender service members to serve openly, and providing them with medical care. In years past, transgender service members could be discharged from the military because they were considered to be mentally unfit.
Buch, right, an instructor with the 338th Combat Training Squadron, jumps during her PT (physical training) at a "boot camp" workout class next to Stacey Thompson, left, and Hannah Van Gelder in January at Offutt Air Force Base.
Buch takes a call in her office in February at Offutt Air Force Base. Buch takes a weekly estrogen injection, paired with testosterone blockers, that has drastically changed her body. While she passed the male PT test she found it much more difficult once she began taking hormones.
Rachel Hammes, left, and Buch shop for makeup in February at Westroads Mall.
Buch is part of the latest wave of societal change to hit the military. In 2011, gay and lesbian service members were allowed to serve openly for the first time with the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, following congressional action and a federal court ruling. During 2015 and 2016, the last male-only combat jobs were opened to women. The end of the transgender ban followed last June. Not everyone has welcomed the changes. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., an Iraq War veteran who’s on the House Armed Services Committee, said in November that President Donald Trump should halt the new transgender policy, calling it “ridiculous.” “Overturn it immediately, because it doesn’t make any sense,” Hunter said in an interview with the Washington Times. “How does that help you fight and win wars?” While campaigning before a group of retired service members last fall, Trump was asked his opinion of recent policy changes regarding women in combat units and transgender service members. “We’re going to get away from political correctness,” Trump said, drawing applause. “We’re going to have to do that.” But Trump also said he would defer to his top military leaders on specific policies. And his defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis — who had expressed skepticism about the new policies in a book he co-edited last year — said during confirmation hearings in January he wasn’t interested in changing things unless the service chiefs show him proven problems. “I’m not going in with the idea that I am going to review these and right away start rolling something back,” Mattis said.
Compared with the decades of controversy over the presence of openly gay troops in the U.S. military, the lifting of the transgender restrictions has caused less debate. Buch said her fellow airmen treated her kindly during her transition, which was chronicled last fall in an article for Offutt’s base newspaper. “It’s been so worth it,” she said. “People have been so supportive.” Her commanders, too, said they received no pushback from within the unit. Other Air Force leaders, in fact, have sought their advice on how to work with transgender airmen in their own units. “Everybody was pretty accepting that she was a part of the family,” said Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Mallette, the 338th’s chief enlisted manager. A Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department hasn’t tracked the number of transgender service members since the policy change. The Rand Corp., in a 2016 study prepared for the Pentagon, estimated the number of transgender active-duty and reserve service members at between 2,150 and 10,790, though another study put the number higher. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann, who heads SPART*A, an advocacy group for transgender service members, estimated that about 1,000 are transitioning right now. “I know it’s happening,” Dremann said. “Things are moving slowly, but they’re moving.” Buch hopes her experience can help other transgender service members. She agreed to tell her story, but she asked that her former male name not be used and her image before her transition not be shown. “I am a woman, and I do not identify with that name at all,” she said. “All it does is it reminds me of a time in my life when I didn’t feel as though I was able to live as my true self.”
Buch, center, works with grad student clinicians Savanna Allen, left, and Samantha Kunz during speech therapy in January at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The new program serves people who are transgender as part of the graduate student clinic for communication disorders. In the class Buch works on pitch, resonance and inflection.
Buch crosses the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge during a run in February. Buch has been an avid runner for years and has completed five marathons. “Running was always kind of my big, my go-to stress reliever, and I’d be out on runs kind of just crying, just like, ‘Why am I like this, why am I like this?’ and go to bed praying at night, 'Just let me wake up as a woman or as a girl.'"
Buch, right, and Tech. Sgt. Tiffany Hobbs lead a mentorship session at Offutt Air Force Base for service members arriving at their first duty stations in January.
Buch said her gender mismatch is something she has lived with since she was very young, growing up in the town of Fairfield, Iowa. By age 3, she was dressing up in girl’s clothes. She liked playing house with her cousins, all of whom were girls. “I would always want to be the mother, and nobody would let me,” Buch recalled, laughing. The movie “Titanic” came out in 1997 when she was in middle school, and Buch was taken with the beautiful co-star — but it wasn’t an adolescent crush. She wanted to be her. “I’m pretty sure not many other seventh-grade boys were obsessed with Kate Winslet’s dresses,” she said. “I wanted to wear them. I identified so strongly with her.”
Buch has her new ground uniform tailored by Sarah Luo in March at Stripes alterations at Offutt. Buch previously owned the male version of the uniform and went shopping on base to purchase the female uniform.
That was also the year Buch first heard about transgender people. She searched online for information on hormone therapy, which would suppress her male hormones while she received injections of female hormones. But Buch was petrified to bring it up with her parents or three siblings. She didn’t confess her feelings to anyone until after she had graduated from college. “I ended up trying to be this person I wasn’t,” she said. “There was this internal battle — knowing I was a girl, but outwardly people seeing me as a boy.” After graduating from high school in 2003, she moved to Ames to attend Iowa State University, where she earned a degree in Spanish and secondary education. She wanted to be a high school teacher. “That’s where my heart is, my passion,” she said. “With teaching.” But Buch wanted real-life experience first. So after college, in 2009, she enlisted in the Air Force, where she learned she could become a linguist. She studied at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. She also hoped that what she expected would be a highly masculine environment might somehow help to calm her conflicted feelings about her gender identity. Following a tour in Texas, Buch came to Offutt in 2012 and became a teacher. Her job at the 338th is to instruct new crew members about their jobs on the 55th Wing’s RC-135 reconnaissance jets. She teaches in the classroom at Offutt, aboard jets and during deployments overseas. But nothing about the military made her feel more “male.” “It only got worse,” Buch said. “It was so difficult balancing my own identity I was trying so hard to suppress with being this ideal masculine person.”
Buch curls up on her couch in early March after finding out she must wait longer to learn whether she can fly again. Buch was taken off flight status for medical reasons after she started hormone therapy. “It’s frustrating because I have to deal with all this stuff based on my gender identity. I have to fight to exist in this world where society does not accept me.”
Buch gets ready for work in January. Before the transgender ban was lifted, she was required to follow male dress and appearance standards on duty, which included strict hair regulations. Until her gender status was changed in the military she was forced to keep her hair short at work. “It was the fact I had to get it cut short. I didn’t have that option.” Growing her hair out was something that gave her confidence and courage, and to lose that was very difficult for Buch. She recalls one haircut that was especially traumatic because she’d been presenting as a woman outside of work for months. “Every month I would basically want to cry at my stylist.” Now, Buch has the option to have long or short hair and has been growing it out since October. “Appearance is a huge part of my identity. It’s how I express my identity.”
Buch prepares for a swim at Offutt. Her tattoo has several layers and meanings. It includes the graphical representation of the Fibonacci Sequence, which is referred to as the golden ratio because it's found in many things in nature. That symbol is placed inside Venus, which is commonly used as a symbol for women. “It's kind of like finding that divinity in my femininity,” she said. On top of the circle is phi, which is the Greek letter used in mathematics to represent the golden ratio. "It has a lot of meaning to me because I've finally been able to embrace my inner femininity and womanhood and I feel like there's power and strength and divinity in that.”
Around the time Buch arrived at Offutt, she began the slow transition to living as a woman while off-duty. She was now senior enough to live off base. She chose downtown Omaha mostly because she liked the lively urban lifestyle, but also partly because she could build a life as “Ashleigh” away from the Air Force. “I wanted to be part of a community that was not military 24/7,” Buch said. “I like being able to walk to a coffee shop, or a restaurant. Downtown was exactly what I wanted.” She guarded her secret carefully, coming out only to a few friends. Outside of work, Buch avoided most social events with fellow airmen who weren’t clued in. She stayed as far away from Offutt as possible. “I would do everything I could to avoid going south of Chandler Road,” she said, referring to a street near the border between Omaha and Bellevue. “I didn’t want to be seen by anyone.” It wasn’t foolproof. Once, at her favorite downtown bakery, she ran into a fellow airman named Bryan Osorio. He knew her only as a man. On this day, she was wearing a wig, makeup and magnetic earrings. “He kind of heard me talking. He finally came to the table,” Buch said. Osorio chatted with her for a few minutes. He didn’t comment on the way she looked. Buch sighed with relief when he left. Osorio, 26, who has left the Air Force but still lives in Omaha, said he wasn’t disturbed by the encounter. “I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but she had been my running coach,” he said. “It was, just, ‘Hey, I’m running into her as a friend.’” Osorio said he noticed after they reconnected at Offutt that Buch wore nail polish and women’s training clothes when they were working out. “People talk. There’s gossipy, rumory stuff. I think some people thought she was a gay male,” he said. Once she came out, her colleagues understood. “She’s like she was before, but more friendly and outgoing,” Osorio said.
Buch walks to a coffee shop in February in downtown Omaha.
Ayla Sunderman, left, and Buch meet for their group Manipura, an intersectional feminist book club, at Dante Ristorante Pizzeria in January. The women have frequent social gatherings and read books relating to intersectional feminism.
Buch prepares her weekly hormone injection in February at her apartment in Omaha. “It’s helped my mental clarity, emotional health and physical well-being,” Buch said.
Buch came out to her family during that time by writing letters to her parents, her two brothers and her sister. She chose that approach over a face-to-face conversation because she thought it would give them some time to absorb the information without forcing them to react immediately to her revelation in person. “That was very hard to do,” she said. “But everyone was super loving and supportive.” Buch’s cousin Carrie Kirlauski said she and Buch were close growing up. When the two of them reconnected via Facebook several years ago, Kirlauski, 35, noticed her cousin looking increasingly feminine in photos. “She started making physical changes,” Kirlauski said. “By the time she came out, it was not a surprise.” That was by design. Buch managed her social media presence carefully. She kept her Facebook page under her male name as she began her transition. But from time to time she posted articles and comments supporting transgender rights, as well as photos of herself looking more androgynous. Buch also created a new but discreet “Ashleigh” page that she shared only with those she trusted most. “I wouldn’t use my last name. I was very choosy who I added to my Facebook page,” she said. In 2015, Buch faced a difficult decision over whether to re-enlist in the Air Force at the end of her first six-year commitment. Staying in meant continuing to live in the closet, at least for a while. That year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced plans to study the future of the policy, and he halted the expulsion of service members solely for being transgender, but he didn’t say when the policy might be changed. She decided to stay in anyway. Buch had started hormone treatments, which she paid for out of pocket. If she quit the Air Force, she would have no job, no medical coverage, no money. And she would face the prospect of getting a job in the civilian world, where legal protections for transgender people were also uncertain. “There’s not many protections for LGBT and trans people,” Buch said. Plus, she added, “It ended up, I really liked being on deployment and making some amazing friends.”
Buch walks through a Valentine's Day flower display at a Baker's supermarket. Buch's mother owned a flower shop when Buch was growing up and she had always wanted to help but felt that others would judge her.
Buch has her hair cut and styled by Rachel Brodsky in February at Boss Studios in Omaha. Brodsky was Buch's hairstylist before Buch came out as transgender. After a year of doing her own hair and waxing her legs, Buch came out to Brodsky, who was accepting and supportive. One night she went to see Brodsky near closing time and, after everyone left, Brodsky taught her how to do makeup. "She´s been there almost every step of the way," Buch said.
Buch, center, and friend Rachel Hammes, right, attend Manipura, an intersectional feminist book club, at Sozo Coffeehouse in Omaha. “I actually feel like I’m a joy to be around now," Buch said.
In November 2015, after returning from a vacation in which she had been completely “out” as a woman, Buch went back to work. Depressed and weepy, she confided to her flight commander, Capt. Tiffany Werner, that she was transgender. They worked side by side, and Ashleigh trusted her. “She was an open and caring person,” Buch said. She also knew Werner was gay and had served during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. Werner said she felt honored that Buch had confided in her. “I tried to create an environment that was open and accepting,” said Werner, who transferred last summer to a base in Texas. “I’m married to a woman. Everyone knows my family. That made it feel safe.” Werner knew that being transgender no longer automatically disqualified Buch from service, so she saw no reason to tell her own commanders. “I had never received any counseling or guidance about what to do,” Werner said. “But I had been mentored about what to do when an airman comes to you with something personal.” Three months later, though, Buch’s story did come out. After notifying her own commanders, Werner called Buch for a meeting. Ashleigh brought a notebook, thinking they would be discussing how Buch could cope during an upcoming deployment, which would be her first since starting hormone therapy. “So, we’re not here for the reason you think we are,” Werner told her. Instead, she revealed that someone in the unit had discovered a letter Buch had written on her lunch hour to a deployed friend. The letter, which Buch had inadvertently placed on a shared drive while she changed offices, revealed that she was transgender.
Buch's dress blues and purses hang in her apartment in Omaha.
“My heart dropped,” Buch said. “I was filled with a sense of dread.” Although then-Defense Secretary Carter had halted the expulsion of service members solely for being transgender, she thought her commanders could probably find a reason to dismiss her if they wanted to. Short of that, they could order her to stop her transition. “I would have felt the same, in her shoes,” Werner said. “There’s a difference between a policy that explicitly welcomes a group, and the absence of a policy. It’s the fear of the unknown.” Rice, the commander, said he knew nothing about gender dysphoria — when a person’s sex and gender identity don’t match — until learning of Buch’s situation. But he knew she was one of his top instructors, and he didn’t want to lose her. “I wanted to get smart on the policy, get smart on the issues, to figure out what we could do as her leadership to put her in a position to excel,” Rice said. Werner did her best to reassure Buch. The 338th was a family, Werner said, and it would support her. “I didn’t want her to lose the faith that she had in me,” Werner said. Buch cried with relief. “Just knowing they were in my corner — that was huge,” she said. “The knowledge that I no longer had to be hidden was a huge weight off of my shoulders. Being outed ended up as a blessing in disguise.” Still, she continued to go to work as a man. Buch’s commanders knew rules were coming about dress codes, bathrooms, ID cards and physical training tests — but nothing had come down from the Pentagon yet. Her commanders began holding weekly meetings with Buch. They urged her to be patient while they went through the process of securing “exceptions to policy” that would let her serve as a transgender woman. Because her hormone therapy had already begun, appearing male became more difficult. Word got out within the squadron, but there was little drama. “Everybody was really cool about it,” she said. After the Pentagon announced new rules in June, she got a new birth certificate, new passport, and military documents identifying her as Ashleigh — a name she chose because she learned it’s what her parents had planned to name a daughter. “It’s been so worth it,” Buch said. “I was able to do my hair the way I wanted. I got my ears pierced.” She was taken off flight status for medical reasons as her hormone therapy began. The treatments have cost about $120 a month out of her own pocket, though she expects the military’s Tricare medical plan to take over now that transgender service members may serve openly. In late October, Buch traveled to Dayton, Ohio, and passed a battery of physical and psychological tests that were required because medical issues involving transgender service members are still so new to the Air Force. Months later, she is still waiting for confirmation that she can fly again.
Buch, right, reads her book club book in February at the Gene Leahy Mall.
Buch leaves the Offutt Field House after her PT (physical training) at a "boot camp" workout class in January.
Buch is pictured in front of an RC-135 jet in February at Offutt Air Force Base. “I’ve been getting involved with so many different things on base and in my squadron and just taking charge of a lot of things that I would have never done in the past. I would have been too scared, No. 1, and too shy to kind of put myself out there. … In the past I wouldn’t because I knew I couldn’t be myself,” Buch said.
Besides work, Buch’s focus now is on her own life, which has completely changed. Kirlauski said her formerly shy cousin is now social and outgoing. They can do things together they couldn’t before, like painting their nails and getting facials together. “She wanted to do all the girly things,” Kirlauski said. “Ashleigh’s kind of going through puberty again, but as a fully functioning adult.” Since Defense Secretary Mattis stated his opposition in January to undoing the policy, speculation about a repeal has died down. Nathaniel Frank, an LGBT historian and scholar at Columbia University Law School, said military leaders have told him they appreciate the new policy because, for the first time, it makes clear how to handle transgender troops. In a short time, he added, gay and lesbian service members have become part of the military’s fabric. Soon, transgender troops will, too. “It would be very difficult and very chaotic to roll this back,” Frank said. “The policy is being implemented. The cake is baked.” Buch is not allowing herself to think about the possibility that Congress or the Trump administration might reverse the transgender policy. “Right now, I know the policy is that I can be open, be trans,” she said. “I want to be the best airman I can, now.” firstname.lastname@example.org, 402-444-1186