UPDATE: The following story is a continuation of our feature, "Investigation: Sailors' Abuse Kept Silent in Navy Canine Unit." For those of you who are only beginning to follow the story, here's a full audio version, with transcript.
For access to all documents, posts, and images associated with this story see our Sailors' Abuse Investigation Hub.
After Youth Radio exposed a culture of hazing, including psychological and physical abuse, at a U.S. Navy canine unit in Bahrain, the nation’s top Naval officer has ordered a review of how the abuses were handled. The Chief of Naval Operations who ordered the review is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and principal Naval advisor to the President. Deadline for that review is October 6th.
Incidents of wrongdoing in the unit ranged from spraying down uniformed personnel with hoses to directing sailors to simulate sex acts on videotape. Youth Radio’s interviews reveal that the abuse was sanctioned and in some cases instigated by the unit's leadership.
Despite 93 incidents of abuse and misconduct uncovered in a 2007 Navy investigation, to date the Navy has not provided a full public accounting of disciplinary action taken against those responsible for the abuse. We do know the unit's Chief at the time, Michael Toussaint, received only a "non-punitive letter of caution". That's the military's equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
Youth Radio has interviewed six sailors from the canine unit who all tell similar stories of abuse, all of whom say Toussaint threatened to revoke their dog certification if they told anyone about the abuse. And some feared worse.
One sailor who served in the unit agreed to speak only if we didn't use her name. "It's supposed to be this tight-knit unit," she said. "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."
Youth Radio has learned from a source inside the Navy that Chief Michael Toussaint and another non-commissioned officer were recommended for courts-martial. Instead, the case was closed. Subsequently Chief Toussaint was promoted to the role of Senior Chief with the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, based in Dam Neck, Virginia, regarded as the most prestigious dog unit in the Navy.
Our investigation began with the story of Joseph Christopher Rocha, a young gay sailor who feared the consequences of coming forward at the time of his abuse. Rocha stayed silent, but when another soldier made assault charges, the Navy’s commanding officer in Bahrain launched an investigation into allegations of widespread hazing in the unit. Rocha went on record against the unit’s leadership.
“It took a lot of courage to testify against Toussaint,” says Rocha. He says he was devastated when he got a call from the prosecutor assigned to the case informing him they didn’t need his testimony. “That kind of loss of gravity, of saying, what just happened? That stuck with me.”
In addition to the abuses Rocha reported, the Navy’s investigation found evidence to support accusations of physical assault on sailors and, in two instances, prostitutes on base--one was attacked by a dog. At one point, a female sailor was ordered to participate in a videotaped training with another female sailor, who was handcuffed to a bed, and appeared naked under the sheets. They were directed to role-play as lovers.
[See a video of Joseph Christopher Rocha describing the abuse he endured.]
Youth Radio asked Yale Law Professor Eugene Fidell, President of the National Institute of Military Justice, to review the incidents listed in the investigation’s findings of fact.
"It did seem to me (from the materials that were made available) that some criminal punishment under the UCMJ (Universal Code of Military Justice) was called for," says Fidell. "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.
"I would expect everyone in pay grade petty officer and above to be held accountable," says Fidell. "These people have responsibilities, they are supposed to be leaders. We depend on them, and if they’re either engaging in this kind of conduct or tolerating it, they need to be taught a lesson."
On January 3, 2008, Vice Admiral Robert Conway, Commander of Navy installations worldwide (CNIC), issued an email (right), with the subject line, "HAZING." He tells the commanders under his authority they have "an obligation to create and maintain an environment free of hazing." Conway calls the practice "contrary to our Core values of Honor Courage and Commitment" and says that hazing "degrades and diminishes the ability of victims to function within their unit."
The impetus for this email? The investigation into the Bahrain Military Working Dogs Division. The very unit Chief Michael Toussaint led before being promoted.
Youth Radio has tried repeatedly to reach Toussaint for comment through phone calls, email, and social networking sites. Naval Special Warfare spokesperson Sonny Leggett told Youth Radio Toussaint was unavailable for comment because he is in “austere locations.” Toussaint's command confirms they forwarded our questions to him.
We’ve been told the review of the Navy investigation will go to the top command in Washington, DC, but there are no plans at this time to actually reopen the case.
Days before the Navy released its report on hazing in the unit, Toussaint’s second in command while he was in Bahrain -- Petty Officer Jennifer Valdivia -- learned she would be disciplined. She was told she would lose her position in the Military Working Dogs kennel. On January 16, 2007, Valdivia's dead body was found in her Bahrain apartment.
Her suicide, and the circumstances leading up to it, will be the subject of our next report.
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For more information and resources about abuse in the military check out the following sources:
- Stars and Stripes: Independent U.S. military news
- National Institute of Military Justice
- Federation Of American Scientists: Copy of 2005 Navy Hazing Policy [PDF]
- Office of the Navy Inspector General- Definition Of Hazing
Don't Ask Don't Tell resources:
A version of this story aired on NPR's All Things Considered.