POLAND — Thirty-one years after Pvt. Donald Tremblay ignored his officers’ orders, drove away from a Marine Corps base in Southern California and returned home to Maine, Elizabeth Tremblay is facing the past.
Elizabeth, 57, formerly known as Donald, was arrested and briefly jailed four months ago on a rare, decades-old charge of desertion. She is now waiting at home in Poland for the Marine Corps to decide whether it will pursue punishment against her.
“I knew they would come looking for me at some point,” Tremblay said. “I didn’t expect it would take 31 years.”
In all this time, there were never any police snooping around, phone calls or even letters, she said.
There was no warning when an Androscoggin County Sheriff’s deputy appeared at the door of her mobile home on Sept. 10, 2012. A fugitive-from-justice warrant for Tremblay had just popped up on sheriff’s department computers.
The deputy put her in handcuffs and took her to the Androscoggin County Jail, where she was isolated in a holding cell and placed on suicide watch.
“Being in that room, I just started losing it,” she said. “I suddenly got claustrophobic. The thought of everything going on 31 years later and of going to Leavenworth prison. I’d lose my cats. My truck. Everything.”
It’s uncertain why it took the Marines so long to catch up with Tremblay.
Numerous phone calls this week from the Sun Journal to Marine leadership in Quantico, Va., went unanswered. There are no answers, yet, as to why the Marines never tracked down Tremblay when she first left or what suddenly changed after all these years.
Tremblay said she wasn’t hiding. She even told her officers where she was going when she left.
“Something happened to the file,” she said. “They don’t know. It was so far back, none of the personnel are in the military any longer.”
But that’s only a guess.
“I’ve been stopped by law enforcement several times, you know, speeding tickets and things like that,” she said. She assumed her record was checked. “Nothing happened.”
She legally changed her name about 15 years ago, when she began a hormone regimen meant to initiate a sex change.
Then, too, her background would have been checked. She hid nothing. Her driver’s license and Social Security card both read “Elizabeth Tremblay.” Even her Social Security number stayed the same.
It all makes the sudden arrest more startling.
“It’s a very unusual case,” said Tim Steigelman, a Navy-educated attorney who teaches at the University of Maine School of Law.
Few cases of desertion have ever dragged on so long, he said. A few Cold War-era fugitives held off capture for decades, but they were the exception.
In Tremblay’s case, the Marines may simply be looking for a quiet end, Steigelman said.
Since the arrest, the Marines have made an offer of a general discharge under honorable conditions, Tremblay said. However, it’s not certain. She has no lawyer of her own and worries that the offer might disappear before the military discharge form, known as a DD-214, arrives.
“They’re going to give me a dishonorable discharge,” she said. “I have a feeling that’s going to happen.”
From Lewiston to San Diego
The Marine Corps was supposed to be a lifesaver for Tremblay.
Donald Tremblay grew up in Lewiston, moved to Auburn as a teenager and attended Edward Little High School until he dropped out. In the mid-1970s, Tremblay moved away to escape a rough crowd.
“I figured by getting out of Maine, I’d be getting out of trouble,” she said.
Donald moved around, from Florida to California and Arizona. There were construction jobs and day work, but little else.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to do something,” Tremblay said. “I’m going to starve to death.”
He picked the Marines because it offered the best challenge. After he took the military’s skills test, he was steered toward a job in teletype communications. He signed a written contract and went to boot camp in San Diego.
He turned 25 while there.
“I loved boot camp,” Tremblay said. “Boot camp was fun. When I went in there, I was in good shape. When I got out, I was in great shape. I felt great about myself. It was almost like going through rehab.”
Then, things went bad.
He was sent to the Marine base at Twelve Palms, Calif,. and waited for his security clearance to begin his communications training. It took months.
“It still bothers me,” she said, crying as her voice fell to a whisper. “I wanted my clearance. I wanted to get on with my life.”
Finally, just before Christmas, Tremblay learned the orders had changed. The Marines wanted to send him to North Carolina to learn to drive Jeeps and trucks.
“I told them I had a guaranteed contract,” she said. “They said that they didn’t care, and if I wanted to be discharged, I needed to go to North Carolina.
“So, I told them I was going to Maine, and I was staying in Maine,” she said. “If they wanted to find me, call my parents. They didn’t say anything. I just did an about face and I left.”
He drove away.
“I don’t have any regrets because I don’t know how else I could have handled it,” she said.
Tremblay returned to Lewiston and quickly began using cocaine.
“At that point, I was so depressed and so discouraged,” she said. She spent five years on the drug. Around the same time, she began having male partners.
Even as a Marine, Donald had begun to see people differently than most. She remembered walking along a Los Angeles sidewalk and whistling at a pair of girls, only to discover a moment later they were men in women’s clothes.
“I started realizing, ‘I’m living a life I should not ever have lived,” she said. “I’m on the wrong path.”
Donald felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body.
“I started thinking about my life and why I really didn’t want to lift weights and stuff like that,” she said.
Slowly, he became Elizabeth.
By the mid-1990s, she was working as a weaver at Bates of Maine in Lewiston when she discovered that her medical insurance would cover hormone therapy. All she had to do was change her name, because the insurance would not supply female hormones to a man.
Fifteen years later, she has shoulder-length hair, a woman’s bust and a whispery voice. She has not had surgery to remove and replace her male genitalia.
Maybe one day, she said. Money is tight.
In 2001, she sustained damage to three vertebrae in a car crash, she said. She is now on disability.
She still imagines what her life might have been like if the Marines had given her that communications job. She imagines being well-off, building a retirement fund and buying stereos, cars and motorcycles.
‘A good Marine’
For now, though, she just wants to keep her freedom.
Her stay at the Androscoggin County Jail lasted only two and a half days. She worries that it may only be a glimpse of what’s to come.
There is no statute of limitation on desertion, and a court-martial followed by prison is still a possibility. The charge is so serious that, when committed during a time of war, the death penalty remains an option.
Tremblay worries that people might dismiss her, without understanding her or her actions.
“People see the gender part, rather than digging deep and seeing who I truly am,” she said. “The only thing they have on me is desertion. Other than that, I was a good Marine. I didn’t get in trouble or anything.”