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Once Kicked Out for Being Gay, a Soldier Hopes to Re-enlist

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Courtesy: Joseph Christopher Rocha

Joseph Rocha, shown here in 2005 with dog MWD Reno, was a dog handler with the Navy in Bahrain.

Mina Kim: The U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" law ends tomorrow and for the first time, gay troops will be allowed to serve openly.

The law went into effect in 1993 and since then, thousands of gay and lesbian service members have been expelled from the armed services because of their sexual orientation.

San Francisco resident Joseph Rocha was kicked out of the Navy under "don't ask, don't tell" four years ago.

Rocha says fellow service members abused and tormented him for being gay. He was bound to chairs and at one point, locked in a dog kennel.

But with the end of the law, Joseph Rocha wants to enlist again -- this time with the Marines. And Mr. Rocha, I have to ask, after the treatment you suffered, why do you want to go back?

Joseph Rocha: Well, it's quite clear to me that that was just a series of unfortunate events, if you will.

I got caught up in a small unit that has a documented history of that kind of abuse and hazing -- straight or gay -- that just, kind of, perpetuated or allowed for that kind of behavior.

And I am very confident and comfortable going back in, knowing that neither was that treatment, or that unit, reflective of the Navy or the Armed Services as a whole.

Editor's Note: A Youth Radio and All Things Considered investigation into the abuse that Rocha and others sailors in the Bahrain Canine Unit suffered led the Navy to reopen its investigation into allegations of abuse in the unit. That investigation ultimately resulted in the censure and forced resignation of the Chief Petty Officer in charge of the unit.

Kim: You wrote an op-ed about your experiences in the Washington Post two years ago to help in the effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." What was the impact of doing that? Do you think sharing your story helped get rid of the old law?

Rocha: I think that it helped some, and I'll never really know how much it did. But I'm confident that it was worth it.

That op-ed and the life that the story -- my experience in the Middle East took on -- definitely led to White & Case, the lawyers who represented the Log Cabin Republicans, and the Federal Court challenge, I'm sure that it led to them finding me.

Joseph Rocha meets President Obama width=

Shown right: Joseph Rocha met the President on Dec 22, 2010, the day Obama signed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."(Photo courtesy of Joseph Christopher Rocha)

And the most significant moment in my life was being able to take that stand, and testify on face value for thousands and thousands of service members, both serving now and who have served in our history.

Kim: Gay rights groups nationwide are planning events to mark the repeal tomorrow, but the U.S. military reportedly plans to treat it with little fanfare. How do you feel about that?

Rocha: I think that the activism and the speeches and all the work that we've done, was specifically, or exactly for that. And so, I don't necessarily take offense to that.

All I ever wanted was for basic job security, and human dignity. And tomorrow begins basic job security and human dignity for all service members, regardless of their sexual orientation.

That is much more important to me than any sort of ceremony, or parade.

Kim: Joseph, what is it about military service that you like so much?

Rocha: I was trying to explain it to someone the other day as religious life. A lot of people are born just feeling like they are just called to a life of religious service.

And I think that, as service members, there is sort of that same kind of feeling; as are for doctors, policemen, firefighters, there is just this natural wiring, and I very much feel that way.

I feel I've never been comfortable a day out of uniform. And I definitely feel, I said that it would be the fulfillment of my life to earn that uniform back and to finish the career that I started.

Kim: What do you think will be the biggest difference this time around?

Rocha: Security. When I was at the Naval Academy Preparatory School -- and even after I came out -- the Naval Academy said I was welcome to stay, as long as I would just take it back.

And I knew that there was no security, that I wouldn't find myself in the wrong unit again, under the wrong circumstances, and find myself, either under that kind of abuse, or simply...You know, I really think what happened in the Middle East boiled down to my unwillingness to prove that I was straight.

And so I think that it's easy to say that a lot will change. It's a moral welfare and, I think, a human integrity that will be encapsulated in a lot of our service members that very much deserve it.

Kim: Mr. Rocha, thank you very much for talking to us.

Rocha: Thank you; it was a pleasure and an honor, thank you.

Kim: Joseph Rocha is applying to the military after being dismissed four years ago under "don't ask, don't tell."

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