Joseph Rocha clutched the folder of papers holding his application to the U.S. Marines Officer Candidate School. He refused to pose with the packet in front of the news cameras, for fear he would appear to be mocking the military process. It was an admirable bit of restraint from a military veteran who was booted from the Navy four years ago, after revealing he was gay. Now that the nation’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy is dead and buried, Rocha was determined to resume his military career.
“My dream is to finish what I started,” said Rocha. “Which is to earn the uniform of a Marine Corps officer.”
The end of the military’s ban on gays in the military, brought whoops of joy from across the Bay Area’s gay community. Many saw it as a significant hurdle in the ongoing struggle for gay rights. But for gay and lesbian vets who were drummed out of the military under the 1993 policy, the victory marked more of a personal triumph.
“One of the reasons I came out was to be a spokesman for those who couldn’t speak for themselves,” said retired Navy Commander Zoe Dunning who left the military after coming out as a lesbian. “ Today’s the first day they can actually speak for themselves.”
Gay veterans and their supporters gathered for a celebration at San Francisco’s War Memorial Building this afternoon. They unfurled a banner reading “Goodbye Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Dunning stepped up to the microphone wearing her crisp white Navy uniform – her voice cracking as she spoke.
“I usually wear civilian clothes,” Dunning said. “But I’ve never been more proud to wear my uniform and to represent this country than today.”
Bob Dockendorff’s dismissal from the Navy predated DADT. During the 80s, the then-Navy captain served on a number of gay organizations in San Francisco. Then one day in 1987, someone scattered newsletters bearing his picture from a gay function, in front of the officer barracks on Treasure Island. He was soon forced to retire.
But even as he joined today’s celebration, he said the lifting of the ban wouldn’t solve all the gay military issues. “We’ve come a long ways, but we’ve still got a ways to go,” Dockendorff said. “We’ve still got the benefits issue -- we’ve still got the transgender issue still hanging out there.” Dockendorff said he was also concerned the bill to overturn the policy didn’t contain anti-discrimination language.
Rocha didn’t leave himself much time two dwell on the lingering issues. In the four years since leaving the military, he patiently waited-out the lifting of the ban. He ran regularly and kept himself in physical shape. Now with the ban lifted, he was heading for an eye test and then to file his papers.
“I would say my commissioning would be the greatest day of my life,” he said of his hope of becoming an officer. “But if it weren’t for today we’d never get there so I’d guess I’d have to say today’s the best day of my life.”