Navy reviewing abuse of gay dog handler in Bahrain

Print Date: 
September 22, 2009
Source: 
Associated Press
Author(s): 
Brian Witte
ANNAPOLIS, MD. — The Navy is reviewing how it handled the case of a gay sailor abused by fellow servicemen in Bahrain for two years until he sought a discharge by coming out to his commanding officer, a military spokesman said Tuesday.

Joseph Rocha, now 23, decided to leave the Navy in 2007 by telling his commander he was gay, in violation of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the constant hazing while he served with military dog handlers based in Bahrain to support the Iraq war.

An internal Navy investigation into his unit found dozens of examples of hazing and sexual harassment against multiple sailors between 2005 and 2006. The result of the investigation was not clear; a copy of the report released under the Freedom of Information Act has all recommendations blacked out.

Now, a congressman who is a former admiral has asked the Navy for information about the harassment, the service's internal investigation, and an explanation of why the head of the military working dog unit at the time was promoted.

The Sept. 11 letter from Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., to Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus followed a story about the Navy findings of abuse that was first reported by a California news organization earlier this month.

"Without a question, it heightens and makes more salient this issue," said Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa. "It highlights the loss of another good individual."

A Navy spokesman said the case and its outcomes are being reviewed.

"The incidents that occurred within the Military Working Dog Division at Naval Support Activity Bahrain do not reflect who we are as a Navy," said Cmdr. Cappy Surette, a Navy spokesman. "The Navy is now looking into the handling of this situation more carefully."

Opponents of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy say Rocha was trapped: he couldn't report the abuse because that could reveal his sexual orientation. They say the policy also played a role in the abuse: Others in the unit repeatedly asked Rocha if he was gay — a violation of the "don't ask" provision — because he would not avail himself of prostitutes who visited their quarters. And, in the end, Rocha's PTSD prompted him to tell the Navy he is gay, resulting in his expulsion.

Sestak also is requesting information regarding Chief Petty Officer Michael Toussaint, who was responsible for the unit and was later promoted to senior chief.

"It would astound me if he was promoted if these allegations are true," Sestak said in an interview. "What kind of a command climate is that?"

Toussaint has been deployed. His location could not be released and he could not be reached for comment, said Cmdr. Greg Giesen, a Navy spokesman.

Shaun Hogan of Maine, a former Bahrain colleague of Rocha's who is now a reservist, said Rocha was treated worse than others who were hazed because Rocha was believed to be gay. Hogan said some in the unit "blatantly asked" if Rocha was gay. It was Hogan who obtained the Navy's report and shared it with Youth Radio, an Oakland, Calif., news organization that broke the story.

"He was one in a large number of people who were abused for a variety of different reasons," Hogan said.

Rocha graduated at the top of his class in military police training school in Texas. He received favorable performance evaluations throughout his career, Sestak noted in his letter.

But within a month of his arrival in Bahrain in 2005 to join the handlers and their dogs in seeking out hidden explosives, Rocha said he found an abusive atmosphere in which he was hazed repeatedly, even though he never spoke of his sexual orientation.

"What made my rite of passage different is that I refused to have sex with prostitutes," Rocha said. "In doing so, I gave them reason enough for them to think I was gay and they took it upon themselves to punish me for it for two years."

Aaron Belkin, who studies the "don't ask, don't tell" policy as director of the Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said while Rocha's case is extreme, the harsh treatment is not an isolated incident.

"Research shows that you can't prevent anti-gay abuse as long as discrimination remains official policy," Belkin said.

Some Democratic lawmakers are pushing legislation to repeal the 1993 law. President Barack Obama pledged as a candidate to end the ban, but has not done so.

Rocha said he enlisted in the Navy in 2004 to demonstrate his commitment to earning an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy after he wasn't admitted to the school.

In June 2007, he was accepted at the academy prep school in Newport, R.I., where candidates can build the academic skills they need to be accepted to the four-year academy. While there, Rocha said depression resulting from his experience in Bahrain made him decide to tell school officials he was gay. He was isolated from other students for two months, then honorably discharged in October 2007.

"I was faced with the idea of being in a navy that condoned this for another decade," Rocha said. "I wouldn't have allowed myself to live like that anymore."

Rocha, now a student at the University of San Diego, hopes he can one day return to serve openly in the military as a Marine Corps officer.

"I'm just waiting for the policy to be repealed," Rocha said.