(MCT) - Ask Kristin Beck what it's like to be the only transgender Navy SEAL in the world and you get a deeply philosophical answer on living a conflicted life.
The one thing she's sure of: After a 20-year career as a highly decorated commando, coming out publicly as a woman was the truest -- and hardest -- thing she had ever done.
As a SEAL and a senior chief petty officer in the exclusive Naval Special Warfare Development Group known as SEAL Team 6, Beck conducted 13 tours of combat service in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots around the globe.
Coming out in 2013 meant not just exposing herself as a woman, but also transitioning into the public realm and diverging from the secretive SEAL community. And, while some of her fellow SEALs accepted the transition, many cut off ties, alienating Beck from the only brotherhood she's ever known.
"It's a trade-off," Beck said in an interview. "I want to be happy but still have that brotherhood, and it's hard being denied that."
But Beck, who served several years in Virginia Beach, saw no other way. One day, she put on a dress and went to her civilian job at the Pentagon. Then, in 2013, 18 months after retiring from active service, she went on CNN and announced her identity on LinkedIn.
Friends and family were shocked. But, as she says in a documentary airing tonight on CNN, she didn't have a choice.
"I was at breaking point," she tells a fellow SEAL in the documentary. "At that point I had no choice."
In hindsight, Beck calls the abrupt announcement a mistake. People were shocked, and the repercussions for her family were harsh. Her two children were teased at school. Angry strangers would show up at their house.
At the same time, she doesn't know what else she could have done.
Seeing this fight as her new mission, Beck now advocates for transgender people serving in the military.
In the documentary, she wears red lipstick and nail polish as she joins an old SEAL buddy on the gun range. She's still a crack shot, even in heels.
It wasn't about the clothes, she told The Pilot. It's about looking in the mirror and seeing a person she recognizes.
"Why can't I do that every day?" she said. "Why can't you look in the mirror every day and say, 'Wow, I like me. I like Kristin Beck.' "
"I started respecting myself and started respecting everyone else," she said. "It's a really big lesson."
For any service member, coming back from war is a huge transition. For SEALS and other special forces, that transition is even more acute -- going on deployment after deployment and then hopping on a plane and landing in your living room.
For Chris Beck, as he was then known, it was no exception. He was married with two small children, and he spent most of his time away. The adjustments grew more difficult.
The SEALS were hard on each other, but they got things done quickly and efficiently, even in the toughest of circumstances.
It wasn't like that at home. His fuse got shorter and he got angrier. In 2006, his marriage ended in divorce.
"I had some really hard times with adjustments," Beck said. "My attempts to adjust were just to go back over. I was riding motorcycles and punching walls."
Add to that the secret he was harboring, and Beck was in turmoil.
In the field, he would take risks, be the first out, run directly into the line of fire.
Today Beck remains alienated from her sons.
It is a source of deep guilt and anguish. "The kids see that, and all they remember is this angry bearded guy," she said. "How do you fix that? How would I explain myself? 'Hey, I am not that angry bearded guy -- I am that happy-go-lucky philosophical girl?' "
In recent years, the military has lifted its ban on gays, lesbians and bisexuals and just recently changed its rules to give same-sex spouses the same rights as heterosexual spouses.
But it still bans transgenders in service -- reflecting a societal stigma that Beck says she faces regularly.
She gets vicious emails and threats. Not long ago, she was walking down the street in Florida when someone hit her on the head from behind. She woke up to four people kicking her.
She'd never seen any of them. And they never saw her at all, she said.
"All they saw was some dude wearing a dress," she says. "They were so offended by my outside appearance they attacked me and put me in the hospital."
Beck sees her role as the only transgender SEAL as a mission to pave the way for others. She's living in Washington and is an active voice for the Military Freedom Coalition, which advocates for allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military.
Had she come out early in her career, "they never would have given me a chance," she said. "We just want to have that chance... to prove that we are capable."
"None of that window dressing matters. What matters is what's inside. What matters is your soul, your spirit," she added.
Beck now has a girlfriend "She makes everything in my life better," she said.
"She saw me for who I am, not for the outside. She doesn't care about all this stuff. She just cares about the real me."
Ask Beck how old she feels, and the 48-year-old says 25. Last year, she was a teenager, experimenting with too much makeup and skirts that were too short. Now, she's more moderate, but she's full of energy.
"I am just starting," she said.
(c) 2014 The Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by MCT Information Services