WASHINGTON – The Navy is admitting that charges were exaggerated against dog handler Michael Toussaint, accused of viciously hazing a gay sailor under his command at kennels in Bahrain.
Toussaint is still being forced to retire for allowing hazing of sailors under his command, though his discharge is honorable, Navy officials say, because of his previous service record.
It's a partial exoneration for Toussaint, who now sees his naval career ended, and a disappointment for the man who accused him, former Petty Officer 3rd Class Joseph Rocha.
Rocha says he left the Navy because he was traumatized by hazing directed at him. But 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, with a caveat that the investigation did reveal some hazing had occurred.
Officially, the Navy would only say Toussaint, a senior chief petty officer, "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 from the Navy, obtained by the AP, reads: "As the leading chief petty officer, you set a poor example by engaging in conduct that clearly violates the Navy's prohibitions against hazing and fraternization.
It adds: "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."
The "fraternization" included gambling with those he commanded for money at his home, two naval officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private personnel matters.
Toussaint's lawyer, Aaron Rugh, said his client is considering appealing the decision, as Toussaint wants to serve with the SEALs.
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.
The Navy retains a few hazing rituals from the older generation, like the infamous "Shellback" ceremony, when sailors cross the equator. Tradition holds that the ship's commander orders sailors to carry out humiliating tasks, including cross-dressing, drinking hot sauce and kneeling before the "sea-baby," usually the fattest Chief Petty Officer on board, and then forcing them to pluck a cherry or other food item from his greased belly.
"It took a week to get the grease out of my hair," said one former officer who went through it. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters sensitive to the Navy. An older version of the ceremony often included bare-bottomed paddling with short lengths of garden hose that left sailors limping for a week.
In Toussaint's case, the training practices that Navy investigators agree did border on hazing included 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.