Joseph Rocha, 24, a senior at the University of San Diego studying political science, will graduate this spring and plans to enter law school in the fall. But if he had his wish, he'd still be in the military.
From the time he was a little kid, he says he wanted to serve his country. He enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday and trained to become a handler of explosive-sniffing dogs wit the hope of eventually going to the US Naval Academy and becoming a Marine Corps officer. He was at the top of his class in basic training, so he was able to choose where he was stationed. He chose to be part of a small unit in Bahrain Because he "wanted to be in the Middle East," close to the action."
Rocha never talked about his sexual orientation. He knew if he did, he'd be kicked out of the Navy. But he didn't drink, smoke, or gamble, and he says his peers in the unit also tried to pressure him into visiting a prostitute. Because he refused, they ridiculed him. They even tied him to a chair, locked him in a dog kennel once, and made him eat dog food. "It was a very small unit, with no supervision, no leadership," says Rocha, who in 2007 finally signed a document admitting his homosexuality and was honorably discharged.
Rocha had already received a Naval Marine Corp Achievement Medal for his service overseas and had been accepted to Naval Academy Preparatory School to go on to the Naval Academy and earn a commission. "Because of my stellar record in the military, and my value to the military, I was told I could stay if I said I wasn't gay any more or that I misspoke," he says. "But I knew it would come out sooner or later. So I chose to leave, and was very fortunate to get the honorable discharge. But you never lose that sense of duty and service and love for country."
Rocha, who after being released from the Navy worked as a graveyard-shift security guard at a hotel in Los Angeles before saving enough money to enroll at USD with help from the GI Bill, says even after all the ridicule and mistreatment he suffered while in the Navy, he will go back if 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is repealed. "Despite the way I was treated, some of us are just wired for service to our country," he says. "I believe in the values, I believe that despite the actions of a small group of people against me, the institution is valuable and honorable. Anything or anyone you live and work with can disappoint you."
Rocha's dream from the beginning remains the same: to make it to the Naval Academy and then become a Marine officer: "It's actually better odds of that if you join the Navy. The Marines are different, they pick fewer of them for officer training."
Rocha, a second-generation Mexican-American who lives in Mission Beach, say his mother was a drug addict who lost custody of him when he was seven. He went to live with his father and his father's new wife. His dad confronted him when he was in high school, and kicked him out when he found out he was gay. A star athlete (swimming, football and wrestling) and and outstanding student, he was 17 and still in high school, "but I was living on my own in an apartment and working as a waiter."
Senate Democrats recently failed to collect the 60 votes necessary to overcome a GOP filibuster led by Sen. John McCain of the $726 billion defense authorization bill that would have repealed 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The measure was defeated in the Senate by a 56-43 vote, lacking four votes needed to pass. The repeal attempt failed despite support from most of military's top brass and the fact that a Pentagon review concluded that lifting the ban would not hurt troop morale. Also this past week, four panelists at a Harvard Law School Dean's Forum agreed that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' should be repealed, denouncing the policy as 'inhumane.'
Despite the Senate's failure to repeal the law, Rocha believes "Dont Ask, Dont Tell" will be repealed soon. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted last week that the law would be repealed by the end of the year, saying that the president as commander in chief has the ability to stop troop discharges without a change in law. According to a new Angus Reid Public Opinion survey, nearly 60 percent of Americans support the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and agree with allowing gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals to serve openly in the armed forces. Some polls have that number even higher.
The Pentagon, which has been collecting data on Don't Ask, Don't Tell" since 1997, says that at least 11,000 service members have been discharged under this law which was implemented during the Clinton Administration. Gay rights organizations estimate that the number is closer to 14,000. Nearly 1,000 specialists with valued skills, including Arabic linguists, have been forced out. According to a 2010 report by the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank that focuses on gay legal and policy issues, the U.S. Armed Forces spend about $22,000 to $43,000 to replace each individual discharged under DADT, and the discharges continue.
But Rocha is undaunted. He has every intention of becoming a
he's pleased that his relationship with his father has mended. "My dad's a blue-collar guy, a trucker who is not political at all," says Rocha. "The fact that he's more supportive of me now means a lot to me."
Last month, Rocha's father, Jose Rocha, wrote a letter to the nation's top military brass in which he pledged his full support for his son. "I'm a heavy machinery truck driver. A blue collar American who raised my son, Joseph Rocha, in a Roman Catholic home with strong Spanish values," Jose Rocha wrote. "Joseph was an awarded scholar, athlete and leader. I did my best to provide a good home for him. But, I wasn't prepared for my only boy to turn out gay.
"Early on in his senior year, at 17, he left the house on one condition: that he never return. I learned through my wife that he was excelling quickly in the military. He was promoted twice in his first year and was hand-picked for explosive detection school. We had no idea that during his 28 months in the Middle East, he was being abused by his superiors because he wouldn't tell them if he was gay or not.
"He only ever called home to tell my wife he loved working with the dogs and about his aspirations of becoming an officer. He sent gifts to his kid siblings for every single holiday and called them religiously. He was a hero to my girls. I struggled through our silence knowing that I was missing out on my son. As it sank in that Joseph might be injured or killed in the service, it became clear how irrelevant who he wants to love is.
"On a phone call home to congratulate me for my birthday, I told my son for the first time that I was truly proud of him and asked him to live his life for himself, not for me or anyone else. Recently, just after his mother's death, I was surprised when he said that he wants to serve again. I asked him why he would go back after all they did to him. I asked him if he was prepared to go back to the Middle East. He replied that he was never meant to be done serving.
"Joseph contributed to my family and to the families of each of his co-workers with loyalty, respect and service. My son had always lead by example and in coming out he has taught his siblings pride and his favorite value, integrity. I am proud of my son and it makes me sick now to read the Navy documents detailing the abuse he stomached in order to try and save his career. He is a brave young man and a patriot.
"I know now first hand that the old ways are not always right and I ask that you encourage your superiors to end 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'' Please allow my son, Joseph C. Rocha, and countless like him, to resume their military careers."