Adobe Flash Player is not installed. Please download and install it to listen to audio.
The following is a transcript. To listen, use the audio player in this post. For access to all documents, posts, and images associated with this story see our Sailors' Abuse Investigation Hub.
Joseph Christopher Rocha enlisted in the U.S. Navy on his 18th birthday, in 2004. He remembers being excited about his first overseas assignment: to serve in Bahrain. He became a dog handler with one of the Navy’s biggest kennels. But Rocha says once he got there, he entered a culture of hazing and abuse at the hands of his fellow service members that made him feel like the animal.
ROCHA: I was hog-tied to a chair, rolled around the base, left in a dog kennel that had feces spread in it.
Rocha says six weeks into his deployment, when he made it clear he wasn’t interested in the unit’s parties with prostitutes, the Chief, Master-at-Arms Michael Toussaint, and others on the base, made him a target.
ROCHA: I was in a very small high testosterone-driven unit of men…I
think that's what began the questioning-you know-‘Why don't you want
to have sex with her? Are you a faggot?’
Read the rest of the story after the jump...
He says the hazing escalated across the unit. Incidents ranged from spraying down uniformed personnel with hoses, to directing sailors to simulate sex acts on videotape. Petty Officer Shaun Hogan, who was stationed in Bahrain with Rocha, remembers a so-called “training video” sailors were ordered to produce.
HOGAN: Petty Officer Rocha and another junior sailor…They 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 played a handler barging onto the scene with his dog. Rocha says the Chief coached him on how to act in the video.
ROCHA: …telling me I needed to be more believable, act more queer, have a higher pitched voice, and make the sounds and gestures more realistic...
The hazing got worse, but Rocha was afraid reporting it could lead to an investigation into whether or not he was gay.
Youth Radio has interviewed six sailors from the canine unit. They all tell similar stories of abuse.
One sailor who would only talk on tape if we changed her voice, remembers seeing a different sexually charged video. In it a female sailor was ordered to role-play as the lover of another female in the unit, who was handcuffed to a bed, and appeared naked under the sheets.
ANON: My thought was what are these people thinking? How is this going to be valid training for her to play—and I’m going to quote here a bitchy Lt, it was very disgraceful.
All six sailors we spoke with were afraid to report the abuse. They say that Toussaint threatened to revoke their dog certification if they complained. And some feared worse. They remembered his warning, “God help anyone who airs our dirty laundry.”
ANON: It’s supposed to be this tight knit unit, we’re supposed to be a family. And when you get into it, the enemy’s not outside the line, your enemy’s within…Your enemy is your chain of command.
Finally, in 2006, one sailor broke through the silence, and reported an assault. The Navy commissioned an independent investigation that uncovered the hazing and other abuses. The investigation’s findings—obtained through the Freedom of Information Act—and corroborated by Youth Radio’s interviews show the abuse was widespread in the unit, and in some cases sanctioned and instigated by its leadership.
The investigation found evidence to support accusations of physical assault on sailors and in two instances, prostitutes on base. The documents also show systemic hazing through humiliation and unnecessary labor.
The conclusions and recommendations of the investigation are redacted in the copy of the report we obtained. To fill in the blanks, we called the Navy’s regional spokesperson, Lt. Commander Wendy Snyder. She said she couldn’t give details of specific disciplinary actions. And that because the investigation took place more than two years ago, the records are no longer available.
WENDY SNYDER: Whether they're shredded or destroyed, I don't know…As far as I know, the investigation was completed, and the outcomes I don't know of those individuals involved.
Since then, a Navy officer familiar with the case has told NPR the report recommended courts martial for both Chief Toussaint and another non-commissioned officer from the unit. The recommendation for courts martial was never followed. Instead, the case was closed, and Toussaint received a “non-punitive letter of caution”—the military’s equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
What’s more, Toussaint has been promoted… to Senior Chief. We asked Yale Law Professor Eugene Fidell, who is President of the National Institute of Military Justice, to review the investigation’s Findings of Fact and give his opinion on the Navy’s follow up.
FIDELL: It did seem to me (from the materials that were made available) that some criminal punishment under the UCMJ was called for, it looked to me like rampant misconduct of a kind that was utterly incompatible with military service on behalf of our country.
Professor Fidell served as a Judge Advocate and has made a career of reviewing military justice cases.
FIDELL: I would expect anybody in pay grade Petty Officer and above to be held accountable. These people have responsibilities, they are supposed to be leaders, we depend on them, and if they’re either engaging in this kind of misconduct or tolerating it, they need to be taught a lesson.
Meanwhile, unit members we’ve interviewed are still struggling with the aftermath of their experiences in Bahrain. Shaun Hogan—the sailor who played the dog handler in the simulated sex video—is now in the Naval reserves. He says he’s haunted by personal guilt.
HOGAN: I was duty-bound to protect those under my command; Petty Officer Rocha [and] several others. I have a lot of regret for not having spoken up at the time and intervening...
As for Joseph Christopher Rocha, the Veterans Administration diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When he heard there would not be a court martial, he took it hard.
ROCHA: It took a lot of courage to testify against Toussaint… And then … to be told that there was no need and there would be no trial…
Rocha says he was devastated. He still can’t quite describe the feeling.
ROCHA: That kind of loss of gravity, of saying, what just happened? That stuck with me…
Shortly after hearing that news, Rocha made the hardest decision of his life. He ended his military career—out of fear that he’d face more abuse at a future deployment, and because he’d come out as gay. Rocha’s official statement read:
ROCHA (reading): I am homosexual. I am proud of my service and had hoped that I'd be able to serve the navy and country for my entire career. However…I must be honest with myself, courageous in my beliefs and committed to my course of action.
(On the basis of that statement) Rocha was officially discharged by the U.S. Navy.
Toussaint’s second in command while he was in Bahrain was Petty Officer Jennifer Valdivia. Shortly after being told she’d be removed from her position in the kennel because of the hazing investigation, she took her own life.
As for Toussaint, Youth Radio tried repeatedly to reach him by phone, through e-mail and via social networking sites. His command confirms they forwarded our questions to him. We wanted to know his side of the story. He has not responded. Michael Toussaint is now Senior Chief with what’s regarded as the most prestigious dog unit in the Navy, the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, based in Dam Neck, Virginia.
But this may not be the end of the story.
Since Youth Radio began reporting the story, Rear Admiral David Mercer has ordered a review of the outcomes of the investigation at the Bahrain Kennel. He’s in charge of naval installations in Europe, Africa and Southwest Asia.
A Navy spokesman issued this statement:
“The incidents that occurred within the Military Working Dog Division at Naval Support Activity Bahrain do not reflect who we are as a navy. They are considered an anomaly based on sailors who were inproperly led.”
And yesterday, we learned yet another higher level review of the investigation has been ordered, this time by the Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy’s highest ranking officer and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The deadline for that report is October sixth.
This story aired on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.