John Killmeyer is a happily married man, a devout Mountaineer Maniac and an aspiring forensic pathologist.
Now that he is no longer a woman, the 32-year-old U.S. Army veteran seems more at peace with himself. Killmeyer is a transgender man.
“I knew since fourth grade,” said the Morgantown, W.Va., native. “It’s exhausting pushing that away. It was one more thing I didn’t want to deal with.”
Killmeyer began his transition in early 2018. At the time, he was juggling life as a forensic science student, a newlywed and a veteran grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet the decision has lessened the load on his shoulders, with family, friends and the WVU community supporting his endeavor.
“No one has said anything [negative] about it. It seems more socially acceptable to be LGBT on campus than it is to be a veteran,” said Killmeyer, jokingly.
But at the same time Killmeyer was not joking.
In a country steeped in political division and sweeping generalizations, Killmeyer believes veterans are either blindly glorified or vilified. He has experienced the latter.
“I was sitting in a history class, and a sophomore decided that I was a war criminal and had no problem telling me that to my face,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Well, OK.’ There’s always that stereotype. You’re a warmonger. Or a baby killer.
“To the general public, you’re either a hero or a terrible person. There’s no in-between.”
Warmongering certainly wasn’t on the list of reasons why Killmeyer joined the military right out of high school.
He thought college was not for him, even though his parents are both graduates of WVU. Instead, Killmeyer set his sights on the military. Specifically, he wanted to play trumpet in a military band.
“The idea of someone paying me to play trumpet was awesome,” said Killmeyer, who played in the Morgantown High School band.
Killmeyer auditioned for the Army and Navy bands. The Navy accepted him. He finished boot camp and was sent to a military music school to hone his skills as a trumpeter. He was then discharged due to “failure to adapt to a military lifestyle.”
“I did better in boot camp than in the music school,” he said. “Boot camp makes more sense to me. There was more structure.”
Frustrated over his discharge, Killmeyer had nowhere to go but back to Morgantown. That frustration grew until one day, a few months later, he walked into an Army recruiting office and said, “I’ll take any job you have. But no music.”
He joined an engineering unit as a carpenter and eventually became a medic. In 2009, he was deployed to Iraq.
“We drove all over that country to build structures,” he said. “We built a gym for the Special Forces near Tikrit and then we were off to Fallujah.”
Killmeyer and five others riding with him in a military vehicle did not make it into Fallujah. They ran over a roadside bomb or improvised explosive device.
“I felt it before I heard it,” he said. “It was quite a shake. I couldn’t hear. Lots of ringing in the ears. It was chaos.
“Everyone thinks IEDs would be easy to spot. The roads over there are lined with trash, everywhere. There are no highway cleanup crews. So they’re very hard to see.
“Another problem with an IED is that there’s a second one nearby. It’s also a great time for the enemy to ambush. So we didn’t stick around.”
Everyone in the vehicle escaped with their lives. But there were lasting damages.
Killmeyer was transported to a medical facility in Germany with head trauma. He was sent back to the U.S. to recover. Still, the Army didn’t think his injuries warranted a discharge and he was reassigned to a unit in Virginia where he served as a medic until 2014.
He was then diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and discharged.
“It was sad, but I accepted it,” Killmeyer said. “No one wants a medic who can’t save anybody anymore.”
Afterward, Killmeyer went to stay with a friend, a U.S. Marine in Wisconsin. The friend noticed that Killmeyer wasn’t quite himself. He was distant and having nightmares. She encouraged him to check into an in-patient program for veterans with PTSD.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, up to 20 of every 100 veterans of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD.
Seeking treatment helped Killmeyer reconnect with the civilian world and with himself.
“Some of it is meditation,” he said of his coping method. “Some of it is counting. Some people keep an object – a familiar keepsake that keeps them grounded.”
Killmeyer’s object is a presidential coin that was awarded to him by President Barack Obama.
After moving from Wisconsin to San Francisco, Calif., Killmeyer grew more and more homesick. He returned to Morgantown in 2016 and decided to give WVU a shot.
“I felt more prepared, more grounded,” he said. “My poor mother had been trying to get me to go to college for over a decade.”
One of Killmeyer’s first actions as a student? Joining the Mountaineer Maniacs, the largest student organization on campus that supports the WVU athletic teams. He’s often in the thick of the student section of basketball and football games roaring along with other Maniacs.
“I love it,” he said. “I’m out there with the signs and posters doing all that crazy fan stuff.”
Killmeyer also had no trouble trying to fit in, despite the age difference, on his first day of class.
“I asked myself, ‘What do you wear to college?’ So I just put on a 2016 fan shirt, khaki shorts and a hat. I’m going to look like everyone else and no one will know I’m here. It’s still like wearing camouflage.”
He’s on track to graduate in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in forensic science. He isn’t certain what the future holds, but he could pursue an advanced degree if he wants to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a medical examiner.
“I’m still learning to get through,” Killmeyer said of college. “I’m more comfortable, though it’s sometimes hard to relate to 18-year-old students whose biggest life experience is that their high school boyfriend broke up with them. Many of my professors enjoy that I’m closer to their age. They’ll make references, and I’m the only student who gets them.
“I love WVU and am very happy that I finally got pushed into being a college student.”