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'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Didn't Protect Me From Abuse in the Navy

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By Joseph Rocha
Sunday, October 11, 2009

I was 18 years old when I landed in the kingdom of Bahrain, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, in the winter of 2005. It was the first time I'd ever left the continental United States. My joints ached after more than 24 hours of travel, but I knew that a new life of service and adventure awaited me on the other side of that aircraft door.

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This was the day I had been dreaming about since I'd enlisted in the Navy a few months before, on my birthday. I loved my country, and I knew that I was ready to prove myself in action.

I also knew that I was gay.

However, I chose to put service above my personal life. My understanding of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was that if I kept quiet about my sexuality and didn't break any rules, I would face no punishment. I was wrong.

Once I joined the Navy, I was tormented by my chief and fellow sailors, physically and emotionally, for being gay. The irony of "don't ask, don't tell" is that it protects bigots and punishes gays who comply. Now, after a Youth Radio investigation of the abuses I suffered, the chief of naval operations ordered a thorough study of how the Navy handled the situation and is currently reviewing the document. I'm hopeful that the case will be reopened and top leadership finally held accountable for the lives they have ruined.

Within days of arriving at my duty station in Bahrain, I decided that I wanted to earn a place among the elite handlers working with dogs trained to detect explosives. After passing exams and completing training, I went from serving among hundreds of military police to serving in a specialized unit of two dozen handlers and 32 dogs. I was responsible for training and working with two dogs throughout the region. Our goal was to keep explosives and insurgents out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

For 12 hours a day in 112-degree heat with 85 percent humidity, we searched vehicles for explosives and responded to any threats. I loved the job, but there wasn't a day that went by when I wasn't completely miserable.

Shop talk in the unit revolved around sex, either the prostitute-filled parties of days past or the escapades my comrades looked forward to. They interpreted my silence and total lack of interest as an admission of homosexuality. My higher-ups seemed to think that gave them the right to bind me to chairs, ridicule me, hose me down and lock me in a feces-filled dog kennel.

I can't say for certain when the abuse started or when it stopped. Now, several years removed from those days in Bahrain, it blends together in my mind as a 28-month nightmare.

Once, the abuse was an all-day event; a training scenario turned into an excuse to humiliate me. Normally we ran the dogs through practice situations -- an earthquake, a bomb or a fight -- that we might encounter in our work. That day, in a classroom at an American school in Bahrain, with posters of the Founding Fathers lining the walls, the scenario happened to be me. I was the decoy, and I had to do just what Chief Petty Officer Michael Toussaint ordered.

In one corner of the classroom was a long sofa, turned away from the door. When you walked into the room, it appeared that one man was sitting on it, alone. But I was there too -- the chief had decided that I would be down on my hands and knees, simulating oral sex. A kennel support staff member and I were supposed to pretend that we were in our bedroom and that the dogs were catching us having sex. Over and over, with each of the 32 dogs, I was forced to enact this scenario.

I told no one about what I was living through. I feared that reporting the abuse would lead to an investigation into my sexuality. My leaders and fellow sailors were punishing me for keeping my sexuality to myself, punishing me because I wouldn't "tell."


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