Originally published on Advocate.com July 16 2010 9:40 AM ET
Former petty officer 3rd class Joseph Christopher Rocha wasn’t the only soldier in his unit subjected to hazing by superiors. But the degrading harassment he faced struck a decidedly different tone.
In a federal trial challenging the constitutionality of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that began this week in a Riverside, Calif. courtroom, Rocha, 24, testified in graphic detail on Thursday about pervasive humiliation he suffered while in training to become an elite military dog handler — abuse that went far beyond ritual hazing.
In one incident, a superior gave him detailed and specific instructions on how to simulate oral sex on another man while fellow soldiers were paraded into the room to watch. In another he was tied to a chair, force-fed dog food, and was put into a kennel filled with dog feces. Fellow soldiers in his unit called him “faggot” and assumed he was gay because he didn’t drink, smoke, gamble, or visit prostitutes in Bahrain, where he was stationed in 2005.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever recovered from it,” Rocha said of the abuse. “It was dehumanizing, I felt like an animal.”
Performance reviews submitted to the court indicated Rocha was an exemplary soldier with a bright future. But Rocha said he did not speak up about the abuse because he feared it would derail his goal of entering the Naval Academy. "I'm confident that, at least personally, had 'don't ask, don't tell' not been the policy, I would have felt confident to report the abuse when it escalated and not fear reprisal."
Rocha was ultimately discharged after he decided to come out. Now a senior at the University of San Diego, he intends to return to the military if the ban is lifted, despite the abuse he suffered that has contributed to a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.
Rocha is one of several service members discharged under DADT to testify in court about a broken policy often used as a tool of intimidation, and one that experts say undermines unit cohesion and costs the military vital specialist talent each year.
“The timing of [DADT repeal] is crucial for me. If the law is not repealed by next spring, I’ll graduate without purpose,” Rocha told The Advocate. “If it is repealed, then I’ll return.”
The trial, which began on Tuesday and is expected to conclude next Thursday, comes six years after the Log Cabin Republicans filed suit against the military’s ban on openly gay soldiers. Attorneys for the national gay Republican group argue that the policy is a violation of due process and free speech for gay and lesbian service members, as well as their families and colleagues, who are forced to keep silent or risk outing a friend or loved one.
Though President Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Justice Department has vigorously defended the law in court, and during opening statements called the trial both unnecessary and inappropriate. Its defense rests on the legislative history of the law and whether Congress had a legitimate government interest in passing DADT in 1993.
Government attorneys have repeatedly objected to much of the evidence submitted by the plaintiffs and have even questioned the authenticity of a February 2 tweet by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who wrote, “Stand by what I said: Allowing homosexuals to serve openly is the right thing to do. Comes down to integrity.”
White and Case partner and Log Cabin attorney Dan Woods, who has worked on the case since 2004, said he had expected the Justice Department would be less aggressive in defending the law after both Obama’s unequivocal pledge to end DADT in his January State of the Union address and Mullen’s subsequent Senate testimony in support of repeal.
“Unfortunately that has not been the case,” Woods told The Advocate. “The fact that they are offering no witnesses, no documents other than evidence from 1993 — I think it weakens their case. They’ve chosen a conservative strategy. And they’re not trying to prove that DADT has worked.”
On Thursday afternoon the court also heard testimony from Aaron Belkin, a preeminent DADT expert and director of the Palm Center, a think-tank for sexuality and gender identity issues in the armed forces.
In his empirical research, Belkin has refuted arguments that gays and straights cannot form bonds of trust in the military, and has shown that the “outness” of a unit statistically bears no significance on that unit’s readiness. Belkin testified that unit cohesion in fact suffers under DADT – in part because soldiers who are closeted are more likely to withdraw from fellow service members in order to maintain a heterosexual façade.
Much of the testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1993 about unit cohesion and close-quarters privacy concerns rested on the false premise that gays and lesbians weren’t already serving in the armed forces, Belkin said.
Moreover, he said that the lifting of gay bans in foreign militaries in Australia, Israel, Canada, and the United Kingdom showed “no negative impact on cohesion, morale, readiness, or recruiting.”
Justice Department attorney Joshua E. Gardner repeatedly questioned whether foreign militaries were analogous to the U.S. military and whether Congress had a legitimate interest in protecting service members from unwanted “sexual tension” that could arise if gays served openly.
On her redirect, attorney Rachel Jari Feldman representing LCR asked Belkin whether sexual tension in the military is limited to soldiers with same-sex attractions.
“No,” Belkin replied.
“And does the military have ways to address inappropriate sexual [behavior]?” Feldman asked.
“Yes,” Belkin replied. “Commanders deal with that all the time.”
On Friday, Maj. Mike Almy is expected to testify about his 2006 discharge from the Air Force under DADT after his commander conducted a search of Almy's private e-mails. Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, will also testify about how DADT fails to further any legitimate military objectives.
The Log Cabin Republicans have provided transcripts of the trial, available here.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story reported that Rocha is a senior at San Diego State University. He attends the University of San Diego.