Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour with a story about abuse at a U.S. Navy base in Bahrain. Our story contains details that some of you will find disturbing, details such as these: Picture a young man duct-taped to a chair, left in a kennel with dogs barking and feces all around. Later, he's forced to simulate sex acts on videotape. He is not a prisoner; he's a U.S. sailor, Joseph Christopher Rocha. Reporter Rachel Krantz is part of the investigative unit at Youth Radio. It's a news organization that teaches journalism to young people. She has the story of what happened to Joseph Rocha and to others in his Navy unit.

RACHEL KRANTZ: 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.

Mr. JOSEPH CHRISTOPHER ROCHA (Petty Officer, U.S. Navy): I was hog-tied to a chair, rolled around the base, left in a dog kennel that had feces spread in it.

KRANTZ: 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.

Mr. 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?

KRANTZ: 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.

Mr. SHAUN HOGAN (Petty Officer, U.S. Navy): 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.

KRANTZ: Hogan played a handler barging onto the scene with his dog. Rocha says the chief coached him on how to act in the video.

Mr. ROCHA: Telling me that I needed to be more believable, act more queer, have a higher-pitched voice, and make the sounds and gestures more realistic.

KRANTZ: 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 only 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 woman in the unit, who was handcuffed to a bed and appeared naked under the sheets.

Unidentified Woman: My impression was, what on earth are these people thinking? How is this valid training for her to play — and I'm going to quote here, a bitchy lieutenant? It was very disgraceful.

KRANTZ: 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.

Unidentified Woman: Well, it's supposed to be this tight unit, and we're supposed to be a family. And when you get into it, I mean, the enemy's not outside the line, the enemy's within. Your enemy is your chain of command.

KRANTZ: 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 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, Lieutenant 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.

Lieutenant Commander WENDY SNYDER (Regional Spokeswoman, U.S. Navy): Whether they're shredded or destroyed, I don't know.

KRANTZ: Since then, a Navy officer familiar with the case has told NPR the report recommended courts-martial for both Chief Toussaint and another noncommissioned officer from the unit. The recommendation 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.

Professor EUGENE FIDELL (Law, Yale University; President, National Institute of Military Justice): It did seem to me, from the materials that were made available, that some criminal punishment under the UCMJ was called for. This looked to me like rampant misconduct that was utterly incompatible with military service on behalf of our country.

KRANTZ: Professor Fidell served as a judge advocate and has made a career of reviewing military justice cases.

Prof. FIDELL: I would expect anybody, petty officer or above, to be held accountable. These people have responsibilities, they're 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.

KRANTZ: 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.

Mr. HOGAN: I was duty-bound to protect the junior enlisted personnel under my command — Petty Officer Rocha, several others. I have a lot of regret for not having spoken up at the time and intervening.

KRANTZ: As for Joseph Christopher Rocha, the Veterans Administration diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. When he heard there would be no court-martial, he took it hard.

Mr. ROCHA: It took a lot of courage to decide to testify against Toussaint. And then I was called and told, no need to testify. There won't be another trial.

KRANTZ: Rocha says he was devastated. He still can't quite describe the feeling.

Mr. ROCHA: That kind of loss of gravity, of hitting the floor, of saying, what just happened? And I think that's - that stuck with me.

KRANTZ: 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:

Mr. ROCHA: 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. I understand this statement will be used to end my naval career.

KRANTZ: 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 email 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 on this, 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 improperly led.

And yesterday, we learned 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 6th.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Krantz.

SIEGEL: And that story was produced by Youth Radio.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.