By Rachel Krantz and the Youth Radio Investigative Unit
This story is part of Youth Radio's ongoing investigation: Sailors' Abuse Kept Silent In Navy Canine Unit.
A Youth Radio investigation finds that the U.S. Navy’s report on hazing in its Bahrain Canine Unit omitted the suicide of the unit’s leading Petty Officer, who feared she had become the scapegoat for widespread abuse.
On January 16, 2007, Petty Officer Jennifer Valdivia was found dead in a small room at her home in Bahrain. The U.S. Navy, which maintains a major base on the island in the Persian Gulf, classified her death as a non-combat related incident. A Navy autopsy later confirmed that 27-year-old Valdivia committed suicide.
On the same day Valdivia’s body was found, the Navy released a report on widespread hazing and abuse in the canine unit where she served as Kennel Master. Though the report’s release was previously delayed multiple times, this time it was published without including the investigation into the suicide of the unit’s leading Petty Officer. And, Valdivia’s death was not mentioned in the subsequent Findings of Fact endorsed by the base command, either.
“I would have expected this to be mentioned in the endorsements… the command in Bahrain had ample time to take her death into account,” said Eugene Fidell, Yale law professor and president of National Institute of Military Justice. “Had I been the staff judge advocate I would have recommended that the command delay its endorsement on the hazing investigation until the suicide investigation was complete, and then see if further investigation into the hazing was warranted.”
Instead, the Navy’s hazing and suicide investigations proceeded on parallel, never-intersecting tracks.
The hazing investigation reveals that the abuse in the Bahrain Canine Unit was extensive. And while the Navy has said multiple personnel were implicated in the misconduct, the sailors interviewed by Youth Radio say unanimously that there was one ringleader, the unit’s Chief Michael Toussaint.
Youth Radio has also obtained redacted copies of the Navy’s two investigations into Valdivia’s death -- one by the Base Commander in Bahrain and the other by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). Together with interviews with her family and six sailors from Valdivia’s unit, the suicide investigations tell the story of a young woman stuck between an abusive and corrupt unit leadership and the young sailors whose lives were scarred to varying degrees by hazing. It’s the story of a scapegoat, who decided the only way out of her Navy unit was death.
“Her final act revealed her to be under stress she was not able to bear, probably a culmination of well-concealed concerns about the ongoing command investigation,” wrote the investigator at the end of his report on Valdivia’s death. “I believe it is unlikely she would have committed suicide if she had not been under such stress.”
Comment on this story in our Facebook Discussion Forum.