If at first you don't succeed, change DoD policy

by Senior Airman Kelsey Tucker, 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Stripes Korea

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- They stand before one another, right hands raised. A father speaks words immediately repeated by his daughter.

“I, Samantha De La Rosa, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”

Onlookers attending the enlistment ceremony at the 25th Fighter Squadron Draggin’s Lair at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, brave the cold to witness this groundbreaking moment.

For the De La Rosa family, this simple event marks the triumphant end of a years-long struggle – one that began with hopes of a strong foundation, only to be denied before the cement could even be poured.

“I’ve always wanted to serve in the military, and I’ve always wanted to be able to pay for my own education while helping and serving a bigger service,” said Samantha De La Rosa. “I wanted to be able to kick-start my life in a four-year commitment and get as much out of it as I can, and then go back into the civilian world stronger than I was before.”

Unfortunately for Samantha, there was one rather large hurdle for her to pass before accomplishing her dream.

“Samantha applied to join the U.S. Army four times, and was rejected all four times from 11th grade to 12th grade to post-12th grade, just because of their policies against certain behavioral health disqualifiers,” said Maj. Rudy De La Rosa, 8th Army director of policies, programs and awards, and Samantha’s father. “No matter how long ago it was, how mischaracterized the case was or how many letters of recommendation we presented, the answer from the Army was ‘no, never going to happen.’”

While children from civilian backgrounds enter the military with essentially a clean slate thanks to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, military children’s medical records are Department of Defense property from the moment they first visit a military treatment facility.

The disparity between enlistees became apparent to the De La Rosas when their eldest daughter, Juliet, was charged with fraudulent enlistment during U.S. Air Force basic military training due to behavioral health notes such as “suicidal gesture” and “self-mutilation” in her record they were previously unaware of. The ruling was eventually overturned and marked as erroneous, but nonetheless, Juliet was barred from military service.

Years earlier, both Juliet and Samantha attended family counseling with their parents after their father’s deployments, permanent changes of station and other times of hardship. Once Juliet was discharged, Samantha’s dreams of a military career appeared bleak – but the De La Rosas wouldn’t let anything stand in their way.

“When Samantha was denied enlistment, I immediately started circulating papers and pushing information up to the Sgt. Maj. of the Army, Secretary of the Army, anybody who would listen,” said Rudy. “About a year later there was an initial change to the policy that stated people with prior behavioral health disqualifiers could now join.

“The media spun that as ‘the Army is letting in crazy people to make numbers.’”

The policy change was met with fervent opposition at many levels, even as high up as the U.S. Senate. In the face of such resistance, the Army closed its doors to those potential enlistees once more.

“I talked to so many of my peers and they said ‘yeah, my kid did that too’ or ‘my kid is going through that right now,’” said Rudy. “There was this conception that self-mutilation was somebody in the basement driving screws in their arms, like this heinous, maniacal, horror movie thing, not understanding that culturally it had become something so common and passed around through peer pressure. It was just a matter of an expression, a cry for help or an expression of ‘what I’m doing isn’t working.’ Part of our crusade was to say if your kid is going through this, a parent should not say ‘do I take my kid to get help, and then they can never join the military because of it?’”

Even in the face of such an obstacle, Samantha and her family wouldn’t give in.

“Military service is something that I’ve always wanted to do, and something that everyone should want to do at some point in their life,” said Samantha. “I don’t understand why I should be unfairly denied that opportunity and duty to my country because of things that I did as a child. I refuse to just give up on it.”

Four denied attempts at enlistment in the Army – and one in the Marine Corps – later, the policy finally changed for good. Now, five years after her last behavioral health counselling session, Samantha is finally cleared for military service in the Air Force.

“As a parent, you never want to look back thinking ‘I wish I would have,’” said Mia, Samantha’s mother. “I’ll never look back and think that us taking her to behavioral health was a bad decision. Seeing who she is today and how resilient she is, I know that any stress or obstacle that comes her way she’ll know how to deal with.”

Now, Samantha looks forward to carrying on the tradition of military service in her family as a fourth generation service member.

The De La Rosas hope military dependents in the same situation Samantha was in can look forward to their future without fear.

“The message I hope to send is that being a human being is hard, and being a human being in the military can be much harder,” said Rudy. “There are resources for you, and you should use them to the fullest without fear of it taking away your potential and opportunities in the future. It’s not a sign of weakness, and it’s not something that should be stigmatized.”

Samantha’s success isn’t hers alone. The battle fought by the De La Rosas ended with a victory for all military families, paving the way for future Army and Air Force enlistees.

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