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Loretta Violet Skreyjo – “Vietnam always makes me cry”

I was born with a gender identity opposite that of my birth sex. I have always felt that most people do not understand that transgender people do not choose to be transgender. Plus, it is not a mental disorder, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Transgender persons cannot change their identity, ever; and they do not just decide to be transgender sometime later in life. I knew that I had gender identity dysphoria way back when I was a young boy: I wanted to be a girl. The word “Transgender” was not even widely known then. Once I understood that there was such a term as transsexual, I wanted to transition; although, still then, it was impossible.

I put aside my desire to transition and enlisted for four years in the United States Marines. I joined during Vietnam. I wanted to fight in Vietnam. During my enlistment, transitioning to the opposite gender was secondary, but it was never far from my mind.

James Owen Yerks, Serving in South Vietnam.
James Owen Yerks, Serving in South Vietnam.

We were a battalion strong in the A Shau Valley, the date was February 10, 1969. I was platoon sergeant, the second in command of our platoon. Our platoon commander was a second lieutenant. It was my third tour, and it was lieutenant Arms’ first tour. I was highly respected by him because of my lengthy experience in country, so he usually asked me what to do. We were point platoon that day for our battalion, and I was leading the point squad with my point man ahead of me and my radio man behind me. We were traveling along one bank of the A Shau River with dense jungle all the way. My squad was ambushed; we fought back, and the enemy retreated. We were fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA); most of them were on the other side of the river. Towards the end of the day, we were ordered to cross the river (only our platoon) and set up a position on a high hill for the night. The river was about 50 yards wide but only waist deep. We had a skeleton platoon: about three squads made up of about 30-35 marines. I set up a machine gun team of two men on our side, and then I crossed with another machine gun team. We set it up so that the machine gun team covered while the rest of the platoon crossed the river. Nobody tried to kill us just yet; we found out later that they where just waiting for us to come to them. Our objective was to get up on top of a hill about 300 yards away. The jungle was still dense, but a partial clearing was about 2/3 to the top. When we got about half way, there were many freshly dug foxholes. I quietly radioed to lieutenant Arms that I could smell them, and if we continued, we would be going right into a huge ambush. He told me to continue anyway, so I put a fire team on both sides of our column. Despite being very tense, I took point. My heart was almost pounding out of my chest!

When we got to the clearing, the enemy opened up fire from the hill and on both sides of us. I dropped to my knees, threw my heavy back pack in front of me for cover, and yelled to my men to return fire. I spotted the muzzle flash from the machine gun on top of the hill, so I directed my fire on them. My men were being slaughtered, and there was screaming all around. My shooting was effective, however, this caused the enemy to spot my position. Because I was downhill from the enemy, they could reach me with hand grenades. The first grenade came right at me. I got down as it exploded, luckily the down slope of the hill and my back pack saved me. Up I went on my knees again to shoot more, but there was another grenade in the air and almost on top of me. This grenade blew me over, and I slid down the hill on my back head first. I do not know if I was ever unconscious , but I hollered for the corpsman (medic) to help me. He yelled back for me to come down the hill farther to him. I scooted towards him on my butt with my legs because half my upper body was useless. He treated me with some battle dressings, but said he could not give me morphine because of my head wound. As it got dark, I went into shock; I was choking on my own blood! There was a huge bomb crater where the wounded were put. I was given a .45 caliber pistol because my left arm and hand were too mangled to handle the M-16 rifle.

The rest of our company and battalion could not cross the river due to heavy enemy fire. The enemy was trying to wipe our platoon completely out. During the night, a Chinook helicopter came in and tried to land in the bomb crater to get the wounded out. However, they were being shot and hit so much that they retreated; then they came back with their machine gunner blazing away. I could only watch as this brave marine was shot out of the chopper and fell into the jungle. With his gunner gone, the chopper pilot got out of there. All night long, my comrades kept shooting up flares to brighten the night sky, killing the enemy as they tried to assault our position. I watched one NVA soldier get blown up by one of our hand grenades. I felt that they would overrun us, and I would kill one or two of them with my 45 pistol, and then they would surely kill me. This battle lasted all night long, but somehow the long night finally ended.

At daybreak, our company came charging across the river to re-enforce our platoon. The enemy had already left. Soon after, a Chinook helicopter landed safely. Since my legs were unharmed, I was able to walk to the helicopter and board before the others. Then I watched as the other wounded were helped in. Finally, the dead were put in body bags and loaded in the back. I counted, and there were 10 dead marines and about 12-15 more wounded. Our platoon was almost wiped out! The survivors are all my heroes; although, I was never to see any of them again. The chopper landed at the marine field hospital in Quang Tri. I again watched as the dead were unloaded and then the wounded; I was the last one out. As I stepped foot on the ground, some high ranking officer came to me and took me by my good arm, and we slowly walked into the hospital tents. I was covered in my own blood from head to toe; I must have been a sight to see! I was placed up on some sort of high bed. I could not talk because of my injuries, so they gave me a pencil and held a pad of paper for me to write my answers to their questions. They cut all my clothes off and even cut off my jungle boots. I was then carried to a Huey helicopter on a stretcher and taken to the USS Repose in the south sea of China for emergency surgery.

I am a disabled transgender American veteran. My health care is provided by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). They have always treated me with great care and courtesy. I came out as being transgender to my primary care doctor and his nurse in 2017. They both accepted me for who I am without question.

50 years latter, Loretta Violet Skreyjo, Home in rural southwest Missouri.
50 years later, Loretta Violet Skreyjo,
Home in rural southwest Missouri.

Throughout my life, my deepest thoughts have been to have my biological sex changed to female and live as a woman forever. My situation seemed impossible because I was married, working, and living as a male. I came out about my desire to be female to my first wife, and she accepted me; however, back then I was just dressing female for enjoyment and in the privacy of our home. It was the 1970s, and we dared not tell anyone. After 11 years my marriage ended because of my own infidelity. For the next 23 years, I was single, and then I married for the second time. My second wife never knew about my desire to transition because I was trying to ignore and suppress my feelings. Unfortunately, we grew apart, and our marriage ended as well. I was single yet again. This time I was ready to give up trying to live life as a regular guy.

There are three things that I have learned in life: 1) you cannot change the past, 2) live your life for the present, and 3) plan your life for the future, but “beware,” you never know what the future will bring!

In 2014, my appendix ruptured, and as a result, I had an emergency surgery that opened me completely up. The surgery failed, and I had to have two more major surgeries. That third major surgery put me on my death bed. It turned out that my entire bowels had to be completely removed from my body because of an infection that was caused by my small intestine leaking. I was cut open from just below my breast bone all the way to my pubic bone. The doctors stated that because of this being my third major surgery under general anesthesia in such a short time that I was not expected to survive. I had no choice but to just do it. My will to live was strong, and I came through the operation. Although I survived the surgery, I spent a full week on life support, pumped full of morphine, and induced in a coma. During that time, I had my 67th birthday.

During my time in the hospital, I was so near to death so after I got home, I changed my outlook on life from just being your average person to being an immensely grateful person. Those feelings are still with me today, and I hope they always will be with me. Before my surgical misfortune, I was about 190 pounds; however, when I got home, I was a mere 155 pounds. I had to gain some weight because I was very weak. Slowly, I got up to about 175 pounds while my deep and long incision on my belly was healing. When my health finally came back, I decided to drop 10 pounds because I really liked having a slimmer figure. In the winter of 2016 with my health back and my body closer to the image I wanted, I decided to transition!

I gather that the vast majority of transgender people are never able to actually transition, to live their life as their “authentic self.” I have learned that to transition takes four main criteria: money, time, opportunity, and acceptance. I am grateful that at this point in my life I have money, plenty of time, lots of opportunity, and acceptance, thanks to the progressiveness of the times.

For my transition, I was so determined that I started by having bottom surgery first, and then I immediately followed with hormone replacement therapy. The female hormones changed my body and have had a feminizing effect on my emotions. I am now clinically, medically, and legally female. I have never been so happy in all my life; I love womanhood, and the huge burden of keeping my true feelings secret has finally been removed!

Loretta Skreyjo

Loretta Violet Skreyjo is a Vietnam era veteran of the United States Marine Corps. She lives in rural Southwest Missouri.

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