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Four years ago, Joseph Rocha was a committed and ambitious 18-year-old Navy recruit sure of two things: his love for his country and the corresponding desire to serve it in the Armed Forces, as well as his sexual orientation as a gay man. Unfortunately, the latter was very much in conflict with the former. Indeed, while sexual orientation need not be an issue for military personnel as there's truly no connection between one's ability to serve in the military and one's sexual orientation, it presents a daily struggle for many of the LGBT people serving in Army, Navy, and Marines, all (no) thanks to the antiquated and always-displaced "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on sexual orientation.
For laypeople, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" means that while queer servicemembers who come out must be discharged from military duty, those who keep their sexual orientation private are welcome to serve. However, while keeping mum may mean keeping your job, remaining silent about one's sexual orientation does not make one immune to abuse by comrades and superiors, as evidenced by the great travesties Joseph experienced while serving in Bahrain. In his own words, "The irony of 'don't ask, don't tell' is that it protects bigots and punishes gays who comply." Additionally, LGBT servicemembers are not the only victims to this policy which is also used by chiefs to silence heterosexual servicewomen into not reporting rape and other sexual assault committed by male members of their units.
While Joseph Rocha's physical assignment was 28 months of duty working in a specialized canine unit trained to search for explosives and respond to threats. However, it was not working the long hours under harsh conditions that was so tricky as he loved his actual job; it was the "shop talk" as well as off-duty behaviors that make his life hell. By refusing to partake in group trips to prostitutes or even talk about sex, Joseph was deemed homosexual by default, which, therefore, made many of his fellow soldiers feel they had the "right" to abuse him while higher-ups looked on or even encouraged the behavior. Examples of the abuse included was was not limited to being forced to simulate oral sex on a comrade and being locked into a feces-filled dog kennel; he was being "punished" for his unwillingness to come out just because he just wanted to defend his country just as much if not more than these comrades.
However, for all the perpetrators and silent onlookers, not everyone turned a blind eye to the abuse; a new sailor reported what was going on yet his unit merely received a slap on the wrist and his chief even got promoted. Instead, a dear friend and supporter of his who was second in command was unfairly charged; that young female officer and mentor of his eventually killed herself out of desperation, making it seem that there was truly no safe way out of the cruelty and injustices committed by their own countrymen. (I'd say countrywomen, too, but while female soldiers may have gotten charged, it is my understanding that it was mostly or even entirely men committing these particular crimes.) Before taking her life, that officer gave Joseph a great gift that he considered "his dream come true," admission to a Naval Academy prep school that would guarantee a commission at Annapolis. However, worn down after the extended nightmare of abuse, his dream of becoming a Naval officer become too much to bear; Joseph came out and resigned from military service. Currently, a Youth Radio investigation of the abuses prompted the chief of naval investigations to review the case, something that Joseph hopes will reopen the case and hold top leadership accountable for what happened.
I find it disturbing that President Obama seeks to continue the war in Afghanistan when the toll on both Afghani citizens and US soldiers is devastating and only continues to grow. How ironic is this push when the majority of Americans and even his own party members now no longer support the war? I find it even more disheartening that President Obama continues to support institutionalized discrimination and, indirectly, even the abuse of LGBT soldiers displayed by Joseph Rocha's situation by not ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I am not completely a pacifist but believe the US should end it's military presence in Afghanistan as well as put an end to the injustice committed against queer American servicemembers through "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." We shouldn't need stories like Joseph's to push us in that direction but once out, I believe we absolutely can no longer claim ignorance but rather demand action.
For more information, please check out the following:
'I Didn't Tell. It Didn't Matter.' Trying to serve his country, a young man faced bigotry and abuse
The Washington Post article by Joseph himself; the basis for this blog entry.
Sailor's Abuse Investigation Hub
The Youth Radio investigation's hub.
Navy Abuse Survivor Joseph Rocha Has a New Pal, Rep. Joe Sestak, and He Wants Answers
A Queerty.com citing the added support of Rep. Joe Sestak, a former admiral who seeks to support Joseph and other LGBT servicemembers.
Navy Launches Investigation on Joseph Rocha DADT Case
A related article from Care2.com, which also includes a video interview with Joseph and link to a petition supporting the Military Readiness Act that would allow queer soldiers to serve openly.
Scarleteen's article on getting started as an activist for the causes closest to your heart.