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Veteran Finds Healing in Being True to Who You Are

3-minute read

Veteran Finds Healing in Being True to Who You Are

3-minute read

Read Stories > Veteran Finds Healing in Being True to Who You Are

For more than 7 years of service in the U.S. Navy and 5 years after, Penn hid Penn’s authentic self. It came at a cost, professionally and personally, until nonjudgmental counseling helped the Veteran heal and thrive by identifying and living openly with Penn’s gender identity. 

Penn joined the U.S. Navy in 1963, serving for more than 7 years as a machinist mate in the Submarine Service. Serving with colleagues on nuclear submarines felt like being part of a family, yet Penn felt compelled to keep some things hidden for personal safety. “I knew when I went into the service that I wasn’t ‘straight,’ but I didn’t know what I was,” Penn says. “And, at that time, it was perfectly OK to beat us up, to kill us.”

“There is a part of you that is constantly aware of the fact that you have to be on guard,” says the Veteran. “So even though I did very well in the service, I could have done so much better if I hadn’t had to guard and protect who Penn really was.” 

Just before leaving the Navy, Penn married Dorothee, who Penn had been dating for a long time. Taking a job in the commercial nuclear industry, Penn still found troublesome attitudes among co-workers. “That part of Penn that was LGBT had to stay suppressed, had to stay hid,” Penn says. 

Pressure to hide one’s true self affects Veterans of every era. Coming out can be daunting, but hiding sexual orientation or gender identity is also stressful and can be harmful to your health.   

For Penn, the suppression manifested itself in angry behavior. “I was completely bottled up. I didn’t have any outlet for being me, which made me violent,” Penn says. “I was never violent in the house, but it was really easy for me to get me going outside the house.” Penn would go to bars, get drunk, and fight. 

“About 5 years out of the service, I sought counseling ... to try to figure out who I was in my sexuality or my gender orientation and for marriage counseling, because Dorothee and I were having a rough time with that,” Penn says. 

Finding a “nonjudgmental ear” 

Penn tried several therapists within VA before finding the right fit and advises any Veteran to keep searching for providers until they find one they’re comfortable with. When that happened for Penn, the talk therapy became a life-changer. 

“She provided a nonjudgmental ear,” Penn says. “At no time did she ever come to me and say, ‘Well, that’s just wrong.’ So we worked through what I was doing, why I was doing it, and was that what I really wanted to do. ... Where do we need to go to make Penn whole?” 

“We got to talk about the disguises that I was using, and why did Penn feel like Penn had to be an über male,” says the Veteran. “Well, Penn had to be an über male because Penn was afraid somebody would find out Penn wasn’t the über male. And because it was trained into me at a very young age, because it was life and death. It was, and it still is to a degree, really hard to drop that shield.” 

Dorothee met with the therapist too, to help her understand. “I was that straight über male when we got married, and we went through a lot of different things together,” Penn says. Their marriage remains strong after more than 52 years. 

“My life today, after mental health treatment—I’m calmer,” Penn says. “I’m not looking for a way to start a fight. I’m more organized in my thinking because, now that I can be my authentic self, I’m not using 20% of my brain trying to make sure that nobody knows who Penn is. Yeah, it’s just a lot easier to be me than it is to be somebody else. … It really feels good when you finally figure out how to be your authentic self.” 

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