Just the thought of it is shocking: U.S. military personnel tying up and ridiculing a young man, hosing him down, forcing him to simulate a sex act with another man, and then throwing him into a feces-filled dog's cage at the canine unit – all while being videotaped.
The alleged victims are American servicemen – and it describes the hazing and abuse allegedly inflicted on sailors at the military canine unit in Bahrain in 2005 and 2006. One of them, former dog handler Joseph Rocha, says the abuse occurred daily during his two-year deployment.
“I could not wrap my head around the degradation and the barbarity of it,” says Rocha, who was 18 when he joined the Navy’s Military Working Dog Division in Bahrain in 2005. Because he is gay, he followed the military's rules and kept his homosexuality under wraps. But although, he says, no one in his unit knew he was gay, he still suffered.
Rocha says others, including his chief, suspected he was gay when he showed no interest in sexual escapades with women. He became a prime target, he says. “It was everyday for 28 months, for 16 hours a day. Nothing I did was good enough; all of my achievements were overshadowed by ridicule of my sexuality.”
He describes being ordered by his chief “to get on my knees pretend to have oral sex with another service member. … I was instructed ... to act more queen, more queer, more homosexual, more believable.” Rocha and several others from the Bahrain unit who spoke to CNN say the hazing was widespread – gays, straights, and women in his unit were targets, too.
In its own investigation of the Bahrain unit, the Navy found more than 90 incidents of hazing and other abuses. It says sailors were "hog-tied' ... force-fed liver dog treats and told to make dog and duck sounds" and "...duct-taped to a chair, rolled outside, and then left in a dog kennel until released." That last example, Rocha says, was about him.
According to the investigation, Rocha and several others in his unit also allege the man who ordered much of the abuse was Chief Master-at-Arms Michael Toussaint. “He loved his authority. He loved his power,” says Shaun Hogan, who served in Bahrain with Rocha and says he was hazed as well. He and other sailors told CNN that Toussaint created such an atmosphere of fear, no one was immune – even Toussaint's number two, Jennifer Valdivia.
Hogan describes witnessing the following scene on video: “Toussaint ordered Valdivia, his second in command, to, well, she was dressed apparently in only a bed sheet, and she was handcuffed to a bed in a barrack's room, and she was in an almost like cat-fight with two other women.”
The Navy is now reviewing actions taken since its 2007 investigation, telling CNN in a statement: “The incident that occurred within the military working dog division does not reflect who we are as a navy." It's unclear whether Toussaint was found to have violated any rules or if any disciplinary action has been taken against him.
However, a Navy spokesman confirms he has since been promoted to senior chief, working with the Navy SEALs. We tried for a week to reach Toussaint for a comment. He did not respond. Navy spokesmen told us he is now deployed and declining interview requests.
Jennifer Valdivia’s father told us that towards the end of the internal investigation in 2007, she expected to take the fall for what happened in Bahrain. She committed suicide after posting this message on MySpace: “Tired of being blamed for other people's mistakes..."
The case has caught the attention of Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak – a former Navy admiral – who says he was so disturbed about the allegations, he has asked the Navy for information about what happened with its earlier inquiry. "For me, the real issue is, why did we let it go on so long?" Sestak says. “Why, once we knew about it, wasn't accountability taken?"
After leaving Bahrain, Rocha was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and decided to leave the Navy by giving a voluntary statement of his homosexuality. He received an honorable discharge. Now a student at the University of San Diego, he hopes to become a lawyer or a politician. And despite it all, Rocha says he still loves the Navy and wants to go back one day, should “don’t ask, don’t tell” be repealed. “I understand this is not a representation of the military,” he says.