This story is part of Youth Radio’s investigation: Sailors’ Abuse Kept Silent In Navy Canine Unit.
After Youth Radio reported last month on widespread hazing in a Bahrain canine unit, the Chief of Naval Operations has completed reviewing how officials handled an investigation into the abuse. He found that the chief petty officer responsible for the abuse had not been adequately punished.
As a result of the top-level Navy review of misconduct in a canine unit in Bahrain, the Secretary of the Navy has censured the unit’s former chief petty officer, Michael Toussaint, forcing him to retire from the Navy.
Previously, an investigation into the hazing at the base in Bahrain between 2004 and 2006 revealed widespread abuse of sailors and other misconduct, including gambling and soliciting prostitutes. On September 22, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead ordered Navy Installations Command (CNIC ) to review what actions were taken as a result of the hazing investigation.
“After reviewing the investigation and the CNIC report, Admiral Roughead found the incidents were not in keeping with Navy values and standards and violated Navy’s long standing prohibition against hazing,” said Navy spokesperson Commander Elissa Smith.
Navy Veteran Joseph Christopher Rocha has gotten attention from the national news media this week.
Youth Radio first broke Rocha’s story back in June when he told us about the abuse he experienced during his time serving in Bahrain.
This weekend, we were happy to see Joseph Christopher Rocha’s editorial in the Washington Post. Here’s an excerpt from the powerful piece of writing:
I don’t think I will ever feel as powerless as I did when I was on my knees, wearing a U.S. military uniform in the Middle East, forced by my superior to shove my head between another man’s legs. But I have discovered that telling this story holds its own kind of power.
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.”
To read more visit YouthRadio.org
UPDATE: The following story is a continuation of our feature, “Investigation: Sailors’ Abuse Kept Silent in Navy Canine Unit.”
(Click here to listen to the full story.)
For access to all documents, posts, and images associated with this story see our Sailor’s 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.
To continue reading on the Youth Radio website, click here.
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. 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.
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 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.
I met Joseph Christopher Rocha standing outside San Francisco City Hall minutes after Proposition 8 was upheld. He stood with an American flag and a poised gaze, and I knew right away that this was someone I needed to interview.
Rocha spoke eloquently and passionately about his feelings on the ruling, only briefly mentioning his status as a gay veteran. We kept in touch, and when he mentioned via email that he was discharged because he came out as gay after years of abuse in his own unit, I realized that this story was much bigger than one interview outside City Hall could contain.
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