Karen Kendra Holmes has dedicated much of her adult life to serving her country and community, including more than five years in the Maryland Defense Force, a volunteer, state military agency that assists Maryland’s Army National Guard, Air National Guard, and Emergency Management Agency in fulfill She achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant before retiring in early 2017.
In December 2012, Holmes, a Silver Spring resident, was named NCO Soldier of the Year by the Maryland State Guard Association and the Defense Force. The following year, she received national recognition when the State Guard Association of the United States (SGAUS) honored her as Soldier of the Year. The awards honored Holmes for her leadership, competence, and achievements on the job.
As Brig. Gen. Brian R. Kelm, commanding general of the Defense Force, said after SGAUS honored her in 2013, “Sgt. Holmes perseveres through any and all obstacles in her efforts to complete a mission. She is very deserving of this honor and she continues to impress us all.”
Clearly, the fact that Holmes is transgender did not negatively affect her ability to serve in the military. In fact, when Holmes, who embraced her transgender identity in 2010 after many years of denial, enlisted in the Defense Force in 2011 the issue did not even come up. With a driver’s license, social security card, and passport reflecting her legal name change and female gender marker, along with the requisite medical sign-off from her personal physician, no one asked Holmes, and “there was never a reason to tell anybody,” she said. At the time, transgender people were not allowed to serve openly in the military.
Holmes acknowledged that hiding a part of herself was difficult. She wanted to be a visible role model for the transgender community.
“It’s tough living kind of a lie because of course all the female soldiers were coming up and telling me, ‘Thank you, you’re doing a great job representing us,’” she said. “And I thought, yeah, I am because I’m a woman, but I’m also doing it for the transgender community, which I couldn’t really talk about.”
Nonetheless, she loved military service. Holmes joined Defense Force primarily to exercise her search and rescue skills, which she honed volunteering for the American Red Cross for the National Capital Region’s Disaster Action Team and the Community Emergency Response Team in Prince George’s County–two of many organizations to which Holmes has donated her time and talent. But she relished carrying out other responsibilities like doing Honor Guard duty at military funerals, Color Guard duty in local parades, and helping soldiers in need as a chaplain’s assistant.
“I was really giving back to the community and that’s what I’ve always been focused on,” said Holmes.
As a member of the U.S. Army in 2004, Ashley Scott celebrated his 21st birthday at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq. During his deployment in the Iraq War he saw bombs detonate and felt the molten heat of a bullet across his skin. He was transported by medevac to Germany after one serious injury, where he spent about a month recovering.
He saw firsthand that war isn’t glamorous or glorious. Mentally and physically, “it takes a toll,” said Ashley. Because of his service to his country, Ashley now lives with a disability.
Given the choice, however, the Minnesotan said he’d do it all again. “The military teaches you many things,” said Ashley–chief among them the core values of leadership, honor, respect, and duty. He’s better at listening and learning and can assess a crisis situation and develop a plan of action. He discovered that spending long periods of time outdoors isn’t so bad, despite the insects.