Published November 30, 2015
Joseph Rocha reported being cruelly hazed by Navy colleagues. Katherine Miller resigned from West Point halfway through, weary of concealing her sexual orientation. David Hall was outed by a fellow Air Force cadet and booted from the career he loved.
The exits from military service were wrenching consequences of "don't ask, don't tell," the policy prohibiting gay and lesbian personnel from being open about their sexuality. Yet Hall, Rocha and Miller savored military duty and now — with "don't ask, don't tell" heading toward oblivion — they want to return.
Rocha, 24, was in Washington on Wednesday, watching euphorically as President Barack Obama signed the bill clearing the way for repeal of the 17-year-old policy. Obama encouraged those who were discharged to re-enlist, and Rocha said he hopes to do just that by enrolling in the Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Va.
"I had a rough childhood, and the only father figure I had was a godfather who was a Marine," Rocha said in a telephone interview after the ceremony. "To me the Marine Corps exemplified honor, integrity, a sense of family — things that were drastically the opposite of what I experienced as a child."
Rocha's eagerness to serve is remarkable, given his experience in Bahrain in 2005 with a Navy bomb-sniffer dog unit. He reported being tied to a chair and left in a dog kennel, hosed down while in uniform and forced to simulate oral sex on another sailor — part of series of hazing incidents that prompted a high-level Navy review earlier this year.
After Bahrain, Rocha attended the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island but decided to leave the Navy in 2007 by telling his commander he's gay. He's scheduled to graduate in May from the University of San Diego.
A recent Pentagon survey found that the Marine Corps, among all the service branches, had the highest portion of members worried that repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would cause problems. But that hasn't deterred Rocha from aspiring to a Marine career.
"Marines are very loyal to their leadership, and unfortunately they have leaders who've been insubordinate to the president," he said. "But I know the Marines appreciate to a great degree how a person's qualifications — if they're willing to die for their country — is far more important than a person's sexuality."
More than 13,500 people were discharged under "don't ask, don't tell." The question of reinstatement was addressed earlier this year in a Pentagon study. It recommended that ousted gays and lesbians "be considered for re-entry, assuming they qualify in all other respects."
The study said the fact that they violated "don't ask, don't tell" should not be held against them but added that if they received an "other than honorable" discharge for accompanying reasons, those reasons should be considered.
Miller, a 21-year-old from Findlay, Ohio, wasn't discharged, but "don't ask, don't tell" was the reason she left the U.S. Military Academy despite impressive achievements there.
She ranked ninth in her class of more than 1,150 and relished most aspects of academy life. But lying about her sexual orientation — in conflict with West Point's honor code — took its toll.
"Every day was a compromise — portraying myself as something I was not," she said.
She said she also felt anguished over her reluctance to speak up when some members of her military ethics class used anti-gay slurs and suggested that sexually active gays were going to hell.
She resigned from the academy in August and is now halfway through her junior year at Yale University. But with "don't ask, don't tell" soon ending, she has already reapplied to West Point and hopes to return there this summer to complete her final two years.
Why go back?
"Retrospectively, now that I've been to Yale, everything at West Point is more of a team effort," she said. "You get a feeling of cohesion, camaraderie. I like that."
If she does pursue an Army career, it's not a desk job she wants. First choice, if combat units are opened to women, would be duty with an armored unit. If not, flying helicopters.
Hall is a former staff sergeant with the Air Force, which he joined in 1996, following in the footsteps of a father and stepfather who each served more than 20 years.
After basic training, Hall served with fighter squadrons at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. He was honorably discharged as an enlisted man in 2001 to enroll in the Air Force ROTC program with hopes of becoming an officer, but he was discharged the next year after a female cadet told his commanders that he's gay.
"You can't even imagine how that feels," Hall wrote in a letter to Obama in May. "Almost 8 years later, I still remember wearing my flight suit for the last time and handing my ID card to the NCO who was trying not to cry."
Hall subsequently got a job as fundraiser and information technology manager with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which campaigned against "don't ask, don't tell." On Wednesday, Hall was on hand as Obama signed the repeal bill.
Now, at age 36, he's pondering whether to return to the Air Force.
"I definitely do want to look into it," he said. "If the Air force does want me, what do they want me to do? Do I go back an enlisted man or to officer candidates school?"
He said he enjoyed the structured schedule and the team spirit of the Air Force.
"You make a lot of close friends," he said. "And you know everyone's going to do their job."
Another potential re-enlistee is Jeremy Johnson, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in sociology at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Johnson, 33, served 10 years in the Navy, specializing in public affairs and journalism while traveling to far-flung posts and advancing to chief petty officer first class. But he eventually tired of "don't ask, don't tell" hypocrisy and told his commanding officer in 2007 that he's gay.
"I basically just had that moment where you choose integrity over career," he said.
Now Johnson wants to talk with recruiters about options for serving again — perhaps in the Navy Reserves, perhaps trying to become an officer.
"Professionally, the military was a great experience," he said. "When it came to personal life, it was very difficult."