Monday, November 22, 2010

Navy Oversight of Canine Operations Needs To Improve: Hazings in Bahrain

The Log Cabin Republicans sued the United States and the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, alleging that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy violated the rights of its members under the First and Fifth Amendments. Federal Judge Virginia A. Phillips of the Central District of California held that 10 U.S.C. 654, stating Congressional policy concerning homosexuality in the armed forces, was unconstitutional.

One of the stories brought before the court was that of Joseph Rocha, who enlisted in the Navy in 2004 when he was 18. His family had a multi-generational history of military service and Rocha wanted to become an officer in the Marine Corps despite not having been admitted to the Naval Academy. He set his sights on entering the Officer Training School as an enlisted man. After basic training, Rocha was promoted to seaman apprentice and volunteered for a military mission to Bahrain. There he sought out the base’s canine handler position because he wanted to become an explosive-device handler. He tested for a kennel-support assignment, but his contact with other handlers was limited to a few on the night shift.

In time, Rocha passed oral and written examinations to qualify for an assignment in kennel support, where he cleaned, fed, medicated, and exercised explosives detection dogs. Meanwhile, Rocha also earned martial arts, combat, and swimming qualifications. Judge Phillips describes what happened next:

When the eighteen-year-old Rocha declined to participate in the unit's practice of visiting prostitutes, he was taunted, asked if he was a “faggot,” and told to prove his heterosexuality by consorting with prostitutes…. [The canine unit commander, Chief Petty Officer] Toussaint freely referred to him as “gay” to the others in the unit, and others in the unit referred to him in a similar fashion…. When Rocha refused to answer the questions from [the Petty Officer] and others in the unit about his sexuality, “it became a frenzy,” in his words, and his superiors in the canine unit would gather around him, simulate sexual positions, and ask if the U.S. Marine Corps soldiers performed various sexual acts on him…. [The commander] ordered all of the other men in the unit to beat Rocha on the latter's nineteenth birthday.

On one occasion that Rocha testified was especially dehumanizing, [the commander] brought a dozen dogs to the Department of Defense Dependent School for a bomb threat training exercise. For the “training exercise” he instructed Rocha to simulate performing oral sex on another enlisted man … while [the commander] called out commands about how Rocha should make the scenario appear more “queer.” …On another occasion, [the commander] had Rocha leashed like a dog, paraded around the grounds in front of other soldiers, tied to a chair, force-fed dog food, and left in a dog kennel covered with feces.

Rocha did not discuss his sexual orientation with his commanding officer, who was obviously not tolerant, but in any case he wanted to comply with the don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Eventually, Rocha returned to the United States and was assigned to the Lackland Air Force Base for Military Working Dog Training School. After completing this training, he returned to Bahrain and encountered the same atmosphere. The new commander was as prejudiced as the last, telling Rocha that he was everything the commander hated, “liberal, Catholic, and gay.” The new commander continued haunting and harassing Rocha and put an image of two men engaging in homosexual activity on Rocha’s computer. Despite the egregious mistreatment, Rocha at first declined to complain about a superior even when he was being investigated on another matter.

Rocha received numerous commendations and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and in 2006 received the sole nomination from his Congressman for entrance into the U.S. Naval Academy. At that time, reflecting on the long-term commitment a Navy career would entail, Rocha informed the Navy of his sexual orientation. Several Officers tried to dissuade him from coming out, telling him he was being considered for various honors and leadership positions, including a battalion leadership. Rocha persisted and received an honorable discharge.

While it has not been my intention to enter into non-canine policy debates, I do think losing this man was a serious loss for the Navy. What concerns me here is that this case refers to practices that suggest that some military working dog commands overseas may not be run very well and that oversight may be deficient or lacking several steps up the chain of command. Why was there a kennel covered with feces? Why was a person dogs were expected to obey put into positions that the dogs might see as justifying a lack of obedience on their part? Why did a training exercise involve simulated sexual positions? What were the dogs being taught to do? Sniff terrorists at gay bars in Bahrain?

Maturity is crucial in working with dogs, particularly with explosives detection dogs expected to have a high level of reliability. Putting the command of a military dog unit in a dangerous location in the hands of individuals with the maturity of a bunch of drunken frat boys should be of grave concern to the military and taxpayers alike. The Navy has said the incident is under review. Rocha has written about his experience. Toussaint was forced to retire.

Log Cabin Republicans v. U.S., 716 F.Supp.2d 884 (C.D.Cal. 2010).

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