Jess Shipps, a tireless advocate for transgender military personnel took her own life on 23 June. She was 32.
Shipps served in the United States Air Force for 11 years, from 2003 to 2014, leaving the service as a staff sergeant. She was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medals three times and received the Joint Service Commendation Medal. She was a public affairs officer and was stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona during her career. She lived in Hampton, Virginia at the time of her death.
“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 met Shipps when they both joined SPARTA, a group for LGBT service members.
Shipps left the career she loved so she could transition, something she knew would be impossible in the military, which still bars transgender personnel.
“She was a go-to person for anyone that was feeling suicidal. If somebody needed someone to talk to, Jess is who we trusted,” said Christopher Hooper, membership director of SPARTA. “Jess leaves behind a great legacy. The countless number of lives she saved is a testimony to her strength and will.”
Shipps alluded to suicidal behaviour and thoughts on her blog but tended not to talk about it much, something common amongst military personnel.
Shipp’s personal issues multiplied after her separation from the military. Desperate for work she applied at a car dealership. Money issues due to extended unemployment made it difficult for her to continue transition. Social rejection added to her depression.
Sieg states she was the last person Shipps spoke with before committing suicide. Sieg was 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.
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.”
SPARTA announced her death in a post on Facebook by their Director of Membership, Chris Hooper:
“It is with the heaviest of hearts that I announce to you today the loss of a great SPARTAn. Her name was Jess Shipps. Jess took her own life this morning. She served honorably in the United States Air Force. She decided to get out of the Air Force due to being transgender at the end of her contract and began to transition. Jess was full of life and was a leader in our organization. She really was a talented and amazing person whom we got to know. She was more than a member, she was family. She was our sister. She has helped many of our members and for that we all stand together today as one in mourning her loss.”
Jess Shipps will never post the second part of this video, promised in December of this year.
If you, or anyone you know, feels suicidal, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
There is also a hotline and website for transgender people in crisis: Trans LifeLine. They can be reached in the US by calling 877-565-8860 or 887-330-6366 in Canada.
R.I.P. Jess Shipps. You will be missed and hopefully, transgender personnel will soon be able to serve openly.