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Transgender troops mourn tireless advocate Jess Shipps

June 29, 2015 (Photo Credit: Jess Shipps)

Friends and family gathered Monday at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Hampton, Virginia, to say goodbye to Air Force veteran Jess Shipps, who dedicated her life to helping transgender service members get through their struggles but was unable to emerge from her own dark times.

She took her own life on June 23.

As a man, Shipps served on active duty from 2003 to 2014, leaving the service as a staff sergeant, according to the Air Force Personnel Center. During her career as a public affairs officer, she was stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. She was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medals three times and also received the Joint Service Commendation Medal.

"I have a hard time truly conveying just how many people she helped," said Shipps' friend, former Marine Cpl. Loren Sieg. "After this, the stories just started pouring in about, 'Hey, a few months ago I was in the same boat and Jess pulled me out of it.' Just an innumerable amount of people that she talked back down from the cliff. Even me. She was there for me, too."

Sieg got to know Shipps two years ago when they joined SPARTA, a group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender service members. They became good friends because they were able to relate on so many issues.

"I was just fortunate that for each of the struggles I encountered, I was able to find a quick solution," Sieg said. "When Jess ran into the same problems, they became long and drawn out."

Whenever Sieg was feeling down, Shipps knew how to cheer her up.

"She just kept talking to me," Sieg said. "I'd be, 'I don't want to talk right now,' but she'd just keep talking. She'd just keep being there for me."

Shipps' own troubles kept multiplying, Sieg remembered. Shipps was so desperate for work that she was trying to get a job at a car dealership.

Sieg was the last person whom Shipps spoke with before committing suicide. Sieg was furiously reaching out to other SPARTA members asking for Shipps home address so she could call an ambulance, but none knew where she lived.

"She said that she's made up her mind; she's decided," Sieg said. "And I was trying to talk her out of it but at 1:11 am, she sent, 'Goodbye Loren,' and then she hit enter to post her suicide note online. I'm pretty sure those were her last words: 'Goodbye Loren.'"

For many transgender service members, Shipps was a rock whom they could lean on.

"Military veterans don't have an easy road. Living as transgender adds an extra dimension to the financial and family stresses; neither the military nor the [Veterans Affairs Department] provides medically necessary transgender health care, and the daily slurs and insults can be unbearable," said Sue Fulton, a former Army captain and president of SPARTA. "But Jess bore up for as long as she could, devoting herself to other veterans and service members. She is much missed."

As a member of SPARTA, Shipps worked hard to make sure no one fell through the cracks, said Army National Guard Capt. Jake Eleazer, leader for the transgender chapter of SPARTA.

"She was kind of like the glue that would really hold people in with the organization," Eleazer, said. "As much as she struggled and as difficult as it was for her to get help and reach out for her help, she was always the first person to lean in if someone needed it."

Whenever transgender members of SPARTA posted online that they were struggling with legal issues or they didn't have a place to live, Shipps would spring into action, Eleazer said.

"She would message them and get on the phone with them and let them know that they had somebody who was there for them — to just be with them and to have that human connection and know that someone gave a s**t about them, which I think is something that a lot of trans folks don't have.

"She didn't toot her horn about it. She didn't make a name for herself about it. You don't see her in the media, you don't see her advocating on the Hill or anything. She just took care of people."

A Navy ensign who recently graduated from Naval Academy said Shipps would confide in her when she was having a bad day. The ensign, who goes by the name "Alex Suzanne" said she feels Shipps was compelled to help others in part because it made her feel better.

"Maybe it helped her cope with her own insecurities to be able to help others," Suzanne said. "I found that to be true in my own life, that helping other people deal with their issues tends to make me a little bit happier. If I'm trying to cheer someone else up, that kind of cheers me up. I feel like she was kind of the same way."

Senior Airman Logan Ireland remembered Shipps for her dry sense of humor and as a person who radiated an energy that other people wanted to be around.

"Here is a person that dealt with a lot of personal struggles that she really didn't like to talk about, but she was always willing to drop whatever she had going on to be there for somebody or to see people," he said.

He said that Shipps was more than a friend, she was a family to Ireland and his fiancee, Army Cpl. Laila Villanueva.

Shipps left the Air Force because she wanted to transition from a man to a woman and the Defense Department does not let transgender troops serve openly, Ireland said.

"I'm sure if this policy had been changed while she was in — who knows, but maybe the outcome would have changed, because she got out of the military, serving her country, to live her authentic life," he said.

Shipps' family issued a statement on Monday expressing its gratitude to those who offered their condolences.

"Jess touched so many lives, and we didn't realize the full extent until now," the family statement says. "We're devastated but also extremely proud of her accomplishments; as a devoted spouse and parent, and her service in the Air Force and LGBT community. Our only hope is that her death brings attention to the issues faced by people in transition. If you know someone who is transitioning, give them (and their families) your heart, your ears, and help them through a challenging time."

Ironically, Shipps died right before the Supreme Court made it legal for same sex couples to wed in all 50 states and the federal government ordered health insurers to include transition-related health coverage for transgender federal employees, the family statement says.

"Even though neither would directly affect her, she would've celebrated both as important milestones," the statement says. "Maybe it would've been the tiny ray of sunshine that cracked through her dark cloud and inspired her to keep going. Hopefully her life can serve as a ray of sunshine for someone else ... she'll always be that for us."

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