‘Certainly a step in the right direction’: Transgender veteran applauds VA’s plan to offer gender reassignment surgery

MADISON, Wis. — The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to offer gender confirmation surgery to transgender veterans. The announcement was made at a Pride event this weekend.

“The VA has provided trans healthcare, they have authorized everything but the surgical part of it. For many individuals who suffer from gender dysphoria, that’s a very necessary part of their treatment plan,” said Sheri Swokowski.

Swokowski said she knew she was transgender when she was just 5 years old, but she didn’t come out until she was in her 50s.

“I’m the highest ranking out transgender service member veteran in the country. There’s at least half a dozen of us colonels, there’s a general, there’s an admiral, but all of us were prohibited from serving authentically while wearing the cloth of our nation,” she said. “I suppressed it very deeply in order to be the best platoon leader, the best company commander and the best soldier that I could be.”

When Swokowski had gender reassignment surgery, she had to pay for it out of pocket. She knows that’s not an option for many people.

Without help from the VA, transgender veterans are forced to find another route, including turning to their insurance or paying for the procedure themselves. But under the Biden administration, that’s changing. The VA is taking steps to modify rules in the Code of Federal Regulations and add gender-affirming surgery to its care.

“Gender-affirming procedures have been proven effective at mitigating serious health conditions, including suicidality, substance abuse, and dysphoria,” said Paul Rickert, Chief of Community Relations at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, in a statement.

“It’s like any other treatment, whether its for hardening of the arteries or diabetes or any other chronic type of illness,” said Swokowski. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when you don’t get the medical care that you need to make you better, there can be bad outcomes.”

She said this decision is building trust between veterans and the VA.

“The Veterans Administration has had kind of its own battles with providing adequate care,” said Swokowski. “(It) has a ways to go to build trust with the veteran community, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.”

This is just the beginning of what could be a long process.

“It’ll take months and perhaps years to get that accomplished. It involves going out and getting public opinions,” said Swokowski.

Still, she said this move is a big win for the LGBTQ+ community.

“Veterans put their life on the line when they raise their right hand and take that oath. And it seems to me that providing whatever medical care they require is a small price to pay,” said Swokowski.

It is not known how many veterans will seek gender confirmation surgeries, but the VA estimates fewer than 4,000 veterans would be interested in the procedure.