By Rachel Krantz
In the Persian Gulf, on the island of Bahrain, the U.S. Navy has a special division made up of bomb-sniffing dogs and the sailors who handle them. The Bahrain Military Working Dogs Division was featured in a Navy News spot highlighting the work involved in deploying these highly trained canines to sniff out narcotics and explosives coming through the Persian Gulf and into the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Developing trust between the dog and the handler is at the core of what makes canine detection work, as together, their job is to step into situations that can be deadly at any moment. However, that trust between the individual sailor and dog does not necessarily extend to the overall culture of the unit.
A Youth Radio investigation has found that between 2004 and 2006, sailors in the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain Military Working Dogs Division, or "The Kennel," were subjected to an atmosphere of sexual harassment, psychological humiliation, and physical assaults.
Joseph Christopher Rocha with an MWD in Bahrain.
It was inside that Bahrain kennel in July 2005 that Petty Officer Joseph Christopher Rocha, then 19 years old, says he was being terrorized by other members of his own division. "I was hog-tied to a chair, rolled around the base, left in a dog kennel that had feces spread in it."
Rocha says that beginning six weeks into his deployment, he was singled out for abuse by his chief master-at-arms, Michael Toussaint, and others on the base, once Rocha made it clear he was not interested in prostitutes. "I was in a very small testosterone-driven unit of men," Rocha says. "I think that's what began the questioning-you know-‘Why don't you want to have sex with her? Are you a faggot?’"
Youth Radio has conducted interviews and obtained documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) showing that the hog-tying episode was not the first or only case of harassment and abuse during Rocha's deployment. In another incident cited in the documents, Rocha was forced to appear in a twisted "training video." A member of the Working Dogs Division, Petty Officer Shaun Hogan, recalls the scene.
Petty Officer Shaun Hogan
"Petty Officer Rocha and another junior sailor…were instructed to go into a classroom by Chief Michael Toussaint, who orchestrated the entire training. And Chief Toussaint asked them to simulate homosexual sex on a couch," Hogan says.
Next in the simulation, Hogan says a handler and his dog barged onto the scene, and that's when "one person…would sit up, kind of wipe off their mouth, the other would get up, and they would be fixing their fly."
Rocha says Toussaint bullied him, "telling me I needed to be more believable, act more queer, have a higher pitched voice, make the sounds and gestures more realistic...I didn't think I had a choice…It made me feel that I wasn't a human being, that I was an animal, rather."
Rocha says at the time, he had no gay friends, no male lovers, and wasn’t even fully out to himself about his sexuality. "The fact that I was starting to figure out that I was a homosexual, it was the most degrading thing I've ever experienced in my life." Still, eight thousand miles away from home, he was afraid to report the constant hazing. And Rocha was not the only one.
[NOTE: We've disabled the comments section on this page in order to keep the discussion on this topic in one place. Please use the comments section on Page Three of the story. We apologies for any inconvenience this may cause.]