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

By Joseph Rocha
Sunday, October 11, 2009; B01

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.

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."

I even saw "don't ask, don't tell" used against heterosexual female service members who had reported being the victims of sexual assault. If my chief acted on their statements, he would be forced to punish a friend of his, so the easiest way to make the problem go away was to scare the women into silence by saying something like: "You weren't sexually assaulted by a male in my unit. I hear you're a lesbian." After all, homosexuals have no rights in our military. You can't sexually assault someone who doesn't exist.

But the abuse wasn't invisible to everyone. In 2005, roughly six months into my time with that unit, a new sailor in our group was taken aback when I was left tied up in a dog kennel. She reported the incident and, from what I understand, this prompted an internal investigation into hazing in my unit. Even then, the abuse continued, and I still couldn't bring myself to talk about it. It took 90 minutes and the threat of a subpoena to get me to testify.

The Navy confirmed 93 incidents of misconduct, including hazing, abuse, physical assault, solicitation of prostitutes and misuse of government property and funds, but the case was closed. After receiving a letter of caution, the military's version of a slap on the wrist, my chief was eventually promoted in rank and position.

In the course of that investigation, the Navy decided to charge my best friend, Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Valdivia, a 27-year-old Sailor of the Year and second in command of my unit, for failing to put an end to my chief's tyranny. The idea that she could have stopped the abuse is, to me, unfair and unreasonable. The Navy itself failed to stop him.

Val, as I called her, was set to return home when she was told of the charges and that she wouldn't be leaving Bahrain as planned. She was afraid that she would never see the United States again. My mentor ended up taking her life.

This incredible woman, whom I ate lunch with every Sunday and ran with every morning, was gone. Since the night I learned of her death, I have been haunted by nightmares. In my dreams, she's decomposing and suggests that the only way for me to stop my abuse is to follow her lead and end my life.

Just two days before she killed herself, Val gave me a gift, a token of congratulations on being accepted to the Naval Academy prep school in Rhode Island.

And despite everything that had happened -- the abuse and her death -- I decided to enroll. I wanted to put what had happened in Bahrain behind me. I had applied to the academy twice before I was finally accepted to the prep school, an education that would put me on my way to a commission from Annapolis.

It was my dream come true. I left Bahrain as a petty officer 3rd class and completed a six-week officer candidate boot camp. My commanders told me they wanted me to have a leadership role at the school. But after more than two years of abuse, the suicide of a fine sailor and the Navy's unwillingness to punish the top leadership in my unit, I was mentally and emotionally depleted. I refused to be punished any longer for who I am, so I made the most difficult decision of my life. I stood outside the office of my commanding officer with my knees buckling. My resignation read:

"I am a homosexual. I deeply regret that my personal feelings are not compatible with Naval regulations or policy. I am proud of my service and had hoped I would be able to serve the Navy and the country for my entire career. However, the principles of honor, courage and commitment mean I must be honest with myself, courageous in my beliefs, and committed in my action. I understand that this statement will be used to end my Naval career."

It would take two months for the Naval Academy and its lawyers to figure out what to do with me. The lawyers dove into a mess of technicalities. The "don't ask, don't tell" policy is riddled with inconsistencies, loopholes, unfairness and hypocrisy. As an officer candidate, I found the situation even more confusing. Lawyers debated: Should they be consulting the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for officers or the regulations for enlisted personnel? Given the amount of money invested in military officers, the policy for them is far more forgiving.

During those weeks I was ordered to restricted duty and living quarters. I was stuck pulling weeds in the courtyard of the school, as students who had been my peers walked to class in their proud midshipmen-candidate uniforms. I was ordered not to contact my former classmates by any means. The school didn't want me to "influence them." This was my lowest point. Based on principle, based on dignity, I had forfeited my dream of a Naval Academy graduation.

Thankfully, I was discharged honorably with full benefits. Otherwise, I would have been left with no money for college and no health-care options for the severe depression, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder that Veterans Affairs physicians have diagnosed in me since I've returned from overseas. That would have been lawful under "don't ask, don't tell."

For years, I kept this story a secret from my loved ones, wanting simply to move on. But I believe we have a window of opportunity now in the effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," and this has propelled me to go public with my experience. This weekend, I will be at the National Equality March for gay rights in Washington, after traveling across the country speaking at gay pride events and at universities, trying to build momentum for a strategy for repeal.

I'm doing all of this during midterms at the University of San Diego, where I am a junior majoring in political science. While my greatest regret is that I will never graduate from Annapolis, I am confident that soon I will serve proudly as a commissioned officer.

I don't think I will ever feel as powerless as I did when I was on my knees, wearing a U.S. military uniform in the Middle East, forced by my superior to shove my head between another man's legs. But I have discovered that telling this story holds its own kind of power.

The more I talk about what happened to me, the more I hear from others who have been in similar situations. Students in the service academies calling me, crying, asking if they should quit. World War II veterans. Enlisted soldiers serving overseas. They are hopeful that we may soon have a different kind of military, that gay and lesbian men and women can serve the country we love with job security and dignity.

Despite everything, I am hopeful, too.

Joseph Rocha is a junior at the University of San Diego. He will be online to chat with readers Tuesday at 1 p.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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