Joseph Rocha enlisted in the United States Navy on April 27, 2004, his eighteenth birthday. His family, like Major Almy’s, had a tradition of military service, and the September 11, 2001, attacks also motivated him to enlist. He wanted to be an officer in the United States Marine Corps, but was not admitted to the Naval Academy directly out of high school; so he hoped to enter Officer Training School through diligence as an enlisted man.
After successfully completing basic training, he was promoted to seaman apprentice and received further training in counter-terrorism and force protection. He then volunteered for deployment on a military mission to Bahrain. Once he arrived at the Naval Support base there, Rocha sought out the base’s canine handler position because he wanted to specialize in becoming an explosive-device handler.
The canine group is a very elite and competitive unit, for which qualification is very difficult. Rocha volunteered his off-duty time to earn the qualifications to interview and be tested for a kennel-support assignment; during this time, his interactions with members of the canine unit were limited to one or two handlers on the night shift when he volunteered. Eventually, Rocha took and passed oral and written examinations with Chief Petty Officer Toussaint, the canine group’s commanding officer; Rocha met the other qualifications and received an assignment in kennel support. His duties were to ensure the dogs – who were trained to sniff and detect explosives and explosive devices – were clean, fed, medicated, and exercised.
At the same time, Rocha voluntarily participated in additional physical training exercises with members of the Marine Corps, such as martial arts and combat operations training, in the belief this eventually would improve his chances for admission to the Naval Academy. As Rocha aspired to become a Marine officer, after receiving permission through the Marine chain of command, Rocha began “more formal training,” eventually earning martial arts, combat, and swimming qualifications.
Once assigned as kennel support to the canine unit and under Chief Petty Officer Toussaint’s command, Rocha was hazed and harassed constantly, to an unconscionable degree and in shocking fashion. When the eighteen-year-old Rocha declined to participate in the unit’s practice of visiting prostitutes, he was taunted, asked if he was a “faggot,” and told to prove his heterosexuality by consorting with prostitutes. Toussaint freely referred to him as “gay” to the others in the unit, and others in the unit referred to him in a similar fashion. When Rocha refused to answer the questions from Toussaint and others in the unit about his sexuality, “it became a frenzy,” in his words, and his superiors in the canine unit would gather around him, simulate sexual positions, and ask if the U.S. Marine Corps soldiers performed various sexual acts on him. Toussaint ordered all of the other men in the unit to beat Rocha on the latter’s nineteenth birthday.
On one occasion that Rocha testified was especially dehumanizing, Toussaint brought a dozen dogs to the Department of Defense Dependent School for a bomb threat training exercise. For the “training exercise” he instructed Rocha to simulate performing oral sex on another enlisted man, Martinez, while Toussaint called out commands about how Rocha should make the scenario appear more “queer.” On another occasion, Toussaint had Rocha leashed like a dog, paraded around the grounds in front of other soldiers, tied to a chair, force-fed dog food, and left in a dog kennel covered with feces.
Rocha testified that during this deployment in Bahrain, he never told anyone he was gay because he wanted to comply with the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act. He did not report any of the mistreatment, although he believed it violated Navy regulations. Toussaint was his commanding officer to whom he normally would direct such a report and yet was either responsible for the mistreatment or at least present when others engaged in it. Rocha’s only other choice was to report the misconduct to the Inspector General, which he did not believe was feasible. He was eighteen to nineteen years old at the time, he testified, far from home in Iraq, and all of the perpetrators were senior to him in rank and led in the misconduct by his commanding officer.
Eventually Rocha received the assignment he had hoped for, returning to the United States and reporting to Lackland Air Force Base for Military Working Dog Training School. Once he completed that training successfully, he returned to Bahrain, where he found that although he was now a military dog handler himself, the same atmosphere prevailed. A new petty officer had joined the unit, Petty Officer Wilburn, who declared openly that Rocha was “everything he hated: liberal, [Roman] Catholic, and gay.” Wilburn trailed Rocha regularly as Rocha tried to carry out his duties, taunting and harassing him. Rocha wrote Wilburn a letter complaining about his conduct; in response, Wilburn left an image of two men engaging in homosexual activity on Rocha’s computer with the message that if Rocha complained, “no one will care.”
When the Navy undertook an investigation of Toussaint’s command (apparently unmotivated by anything Rocha said or did), Rocha was questioned by a captain but at first refused to answer any questions about the mistreatment he was subjected to because he was afraid the investigation might lead to questions about his sexual orientation and an investigation on that subject. So great was Rocha’s fear of retaliation that he responded to an investigating officer’s questions regarding Toussaint only after he was threatened with a court martial if he refused to do so.
The Navy recognized Rocha with several awards during his service, including the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for professional achievement that exceeds expectations; the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; the National Defense Service Medal; and the Navy Expert Rifleman Medal.
Rocha received consistently excellent performance evaluations and reviews while he served in the Navy. In Rocha’s review covering February 18, 2005, through July 15, 2005, his supervisors – including Toussaint – described Rocha as “highly motivated” and a “dedicated, extremely reliable performer who approaches every task with enthusiasm.” Rocha’s review also stated that he was a “proven performer” who was “highly recommended for advancement.” Rocha’s review recommended him for early promotion, which he received shortly thereafter. Toussaint signed the review as Rocha’s senior reviewing military officer.
Despite the ongoing harassment, Rocha continued to receive exemplary reviews from his supervisors in the canine handling unit, including Chief Petty Officer Toussaint. In a review covering July 16, 2005, through June 16, 2006, then-Petty Officer Rocha is described as an “exceptionally outstanding young sailor whose performance, initiative, and immeasurable energy make[ ] him a model Master-At-Arms.” The review also noted that as a military working dog handler, Rocha “flawlessly inspected [over 300 items of military equipment,] increasing the force protection of NSA Bahrain.” As a result of his performance as a military working dog handler, Rocha received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, which is given when an enlisted member exceeds expectations.
In 2006, Rocha was chosen to receive the sole nomination from his congressman for entrance into the U.S. Naval Academy, and Rocha chose to apply to the Naval Academy’s preparatory school in the event he was not accepted directly into the Naval Academy.* As required, he received the nomination of everyone in his chain of command for his entry into the academy and was accepted into the Naval Academy’s preparatory school. He described his acceptance as “the most significant moment of [his] life . . . , [because acceptance into the Naval Academy] was the biggest dream [he’d] ever had.”
Once he enrolled at the preparatory academy, Rocha testified, he had the opportunity to reflect on his experiences in Bahrain. His instructors at the preparatory academy stressed the nature of the fifteen- to twenty-year commitment expected of the officer candidates. Rocha understood he was gay when he enlisted in the Navy at age eighteen, and had complied fully with the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act during his service, which he had thought would protect him. After reflecting on his experiences in the military working dog unit in Bahrain, however, he decided it would be impossible for him to serve under the restraints of the Act and fulfill the commitment expected of him. He then decided to inform the Navy of his sexual orientation.
He first sought permission from Ensign Reingelstein to speak to the division commander; Ensign Reingelstein unsuccessfully tried to persuade Rocha to change his mind. Rocha then was allowed to meet with his commanding officer, Lt. Bonnieuto, who listened and told him to return to his unit. Eventually, he received an honorable discharge , although before accepting Rocha’s statement, Lt. Bonnieuto tried to dissuade him, telling him he was being considered for various honors and leadership positions at the preparatory academy, including “battalion leadership.”
After his discharge, Rocha testified, he was diagnosed with service- related disorders including “post-traumatic stress disorder with major depression.” He also testified he would rejoin the Navy if the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act was repealed.
Even when recounting the mistreatment endured under Toussaint’s command, Rocha testified in an understated and sincere manner. The Court found him a forthright and credible witness.
* According to Rocha’s uncontradicted testimony on this point, the preparatory academy is designed to give extra academic support before entry into the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Once admitted into the preparatory academy, acceptance into Annapolis is guaranteed.