WASHINGTON – The Navy is admitting it was wrong when it accused dog handler Michael Toussaint of vicious hazing that singled out a gay sailor under his command at kennels in Bahrain. Still, the senior chief petty officer is being forced into retirement for other infractions.
Navy officials ruled last year that the investigation into the charges against Toussaint was of "poor quality" and "flawed," with many of the claims unsubstantiated, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. On Thursday, the Navy's top command officially accepted those findings.
Toussaint will still be forced to retire from the Navy for allowing what officials considered "minor" hazing directed at former Petty Officer 3rd Class Joseph Rocha and all other trainees, according to two Naval officers. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal personnel matter.
Toussaint was also accused of "fraternization" with those he commanded, including gambling for money at his home.
Officially, the Navy would only say Toussaint "did not meet the standards expected of senior enlisted leadership in our Navy," according to a statement by Juan Garcia, assistant Navy secretary for manpower and reserve affairs. The secretary of the Navy concurred with the decision by the chief of naval operations that Toussaint not be permitted to re-enlist, Garcia said.
Toussaint's new letter of censure, obtained by the AP, reads, "You set a poor example by engaging in conduct that clearly violates the Navy's prohibitions against hazing and fraternization."
Signed by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the letter concludes: "As a result of your poor example, your subordinates emulated this behavior by taking part in their own hazing activities, which created a workplace environment that failed to treat sailors with dignity and respect."
Toussaint's lawyer, Aaron Rugh, said his client will receive an honorable discharge at current rating and his notice of discharge will not mention hazing. However, Toussaint wants to serve with the SEALs and is considering appealing the decision to the secretary of defense, Rugh said.
Toussaint remains in the running for one of the Navy's highest awards, a Silver Star, for saving the life of a Navy SEAL in a firefight with insurgents in Afghanistan in 2009. The award has already been presented to Toussaint's dog Remco, who was killed when the pair charged an insurgent's hideout.
Rocha alleged that Toussaint targeted him for being gay, leading to what Rocha described as a nightmare tour in Bahrain in 2005 and 2006 during which he was locked in a "feces-filled dog kennel" and "forced by my superior" to simulate sex acts on fellow trainers.
Rocha resigned from the Navy in 2007 after revealing his sexuality and being discharged under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy against openly gay military service.
In response to a request for comment, Rocha wrote in an e-mail Thursday: "This case will have a lasting impact on the military as a whole in keeping our men and women safe as they serve and honoring anyone who has been mistreated while wearing a uniform. I and many like myself now proudly await the near future when the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' is fully implemented and we can continue our military service."
In 2009, Rocha wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post that helped make him one of the best-known of the more than 10,000 people dismissed from the military under the 1993 policy banning openly gay service members.
"I was tormented by my chief and fellow sailors, physically and emotionally, for being gay. The irony of 'don't ask, don't tell' is that it protects bigots and punishes gays who comply," Rocha wrote.
Rocha was invited to the White House in December to watch President Barack Obama sign the bill in December repealing the policy. Obama encouraged those who were discharged to re-enlist, and Rocha said he hopes to do just that.
Behind Rocha's story, though, is Toussaint's claim that he was strung up by a Navy eager to show that it is inclusive and tolerant. Both men claim they were wronged.
Naval officers involved in investigating the Toussaint case called the original decision to censure Toussaint a "reverse Tailhook" reaction, a reflexive and hasty attempt to prove that the Navy had learned its lesson from the 1991 Tailhook convention sexual harassment scandal.
The Navy had initially ignored the testimony of female naval officers who said they were forced to run a gauntlet of fellow officers, groping them at the convention.
A culture clash remains in the Navy between the bawdy traditions of old and the image of a modern co-ed service that current leaders portray.
The most recent illustration of that clash came from the ouster of Navy Capt. Owen Honors, who was removed from command for showing raunchy videos to the crew when he was the executive officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Honors says superior officers approved his actions.
In Toussaint's case, the training practices that Navy investigators agree did border on hazing include forcing new trainees to carry around a bucket for days, pretending it was the trainees' dog, or forcing them to sing children's songs like "I'm a little teapot."
It's unclear what prompted the original investigation into the kennels. It started roughly after Toussaint had left Bahrain to deploy to Afghanistan with the SEAL team.
The officers who reviewed the original investigation say Toussaint was never interviewed about the charges. His only chance to speak publicly came during an administrative hearing, in early 2010, to determine whether he would be allowed to retire at his current rank or the lower rank he held when the incidents allegedly occurred.
After two days of listening to the evidence, the three-man administration board ruled in just 30 minutes that the case was based on largely uncorroborated hearsay. In the documents obtained by the AP, the officers pointed out that witnesses contradicted themselves. Rocha himself admitted to getting some of the facts wrong in his Post article and in his original testimony.
Rocha claimed he was soaked by a fire hose with his dog. An examination of the base showed it only had garden hoses and that "this was part of a tradition conducted when a new handler certifies with his first dog," Cmdr. William Murray, one of the administration board members, wrote in a summary of his decision, which was obtained by the AP.
Rocha claimed that in one training scenario, he was forced to simulate a sexual act on another male dog handler, during which all 32 dogs in the kennel would be brought in one-by-one to interrupt the act, to teach the dogs how to respond to stressful reactions in humans.
The sailor who allegedly was his partner denied it had happened, and Rocha admitted under cross-examination that there were only 16 dogs at the kennel, and that Toussaint was not present, according to the report.
"This exaggeration made me question whether other details of Mr. Rocha's testimony had been exaggerated," Murray wrote.
In Rocha's article in the Post, he said that Toussaint's deputy Jennifer Valdivia felt bullied by her boss' management style and was so distraught over the subsequent investigation into the hazing that she took her own life.
E-mails in the court record show Valdivia contacted Toussaint right up to the week before her death, heavily reliant on his advice on how to handle day-to-day management issues, which made the officers question Rocha's characterization.
The officers say Valdivia's own command record also shows it was her idea to tape Rocha to a chair and lock him in the kennels because the "prank," as she called it, had been carried out on everyone else. According to the officers who reviewed the case, she did this at Rocha's own request, so he would feel like "one of the guys," and she writes that she asked Rocha several times throughout whether he wanted it stopped.