Abuse Probe May Have Pushed Navy Sailor To Suicide
In January 2007, Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Valdivia, a 27-year-old dog handler at a U.S. Navy base in Bahrain, was found dead in her living quarters. She had killed herself.
Valdivia's suicide came as she was under investigation for her role in a culture of hazing and abuse in her canine unit.
Interviews and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act suggest that before she was an alleged victimizer, Valdivia, too, was subjected to sexually demeaning abuse. And they suggest that Valdivia may have taken her own life amid fears that she would become a scapegoat for her unit's widespread transgressions.
'She Loved The Discipline Of The Navy'
Chris Young's farmhouse is surrounded by the vast, flat fields of corn and soybeans in rural Illinois. He's sitting at the kitchen table, under a photo of Valdivia, his daughter. In the picture, she's in her mid-20s, smiling and wearing a Navy uniform.
Young says his daughter joined the military right out of high school. "And then she decided she was going to make a career out of it," he says. "She loved the discipline of the Navy — what she stood for, what the Navy stood for."
Young's table is covered in papers — the Navy's investigation into his daughter's death. Valdivia won the Bahrain base's Sailor of the Year award for 2005. And yet during that time, she was caught up in the abuse that had taken hold in her unit.
One of the sailors who was a member of that unit, former Petty Officer Shaun Hogan, describes the abuse: "Some people were hosed down in full uniform. Some people were hogtied and rolled into a kennel. Other people were forced to carry around fake dogs that were covered in animal feces. The sort of hazing that occurred ran the gamut."
Both Victim And Victimizer?
Youth Radio's interviews with six sailors from the unit all point to Valdivia's boss, Chief Michael Toussaint, as the ringleader. Top Navy officials have since forced Toussaint into retirement, effective in January. Youth Radio has repeatedly reached out to Toussaint for his side of the story. A Navy spokesman says Toussaint is not making himself available to the media.
Several sailors from the unit say Valdivia was a target of the abuse. In one incident, Valdivia was ordered to participate in a videotaped training simulation; in it, she appeared naked and handcuffed under a bedsheet and played the role of another female sailor's lover.
The documents and interviews also expose the complexity of Valdivia's role in the hazing. Jacob Wilburn, who was a petty officer in the unit, says when Valdivia was promoted to Toussaint's second-in-command, she did little to end the culture of abuse.
"You kind of look at Chief, and Valdivia would be behind him," Wilburn says. "She would go 'Yeah, what he said — do it.' She was definitely scared to death to do anything to the contrary."
In 2006, Toussaint was reassigned and Valdivia was promoted to kennel master. When Toussaint left the island, the worst abuse stopped, but sailors say Valdivia continued some of the harassment, such as waking sailors in the middle of the night. Jake Wilburn says Valdivia tried to be a tough supervisor.
"I think she was kind of hoping to ride some of Chief's intimidation," Wilburn says, adding, "Once Chief left, she tried to rule with an iron fist, and everybody just walked all over her, and she didn't know what to do."
'They Were Looking For A Scapegoat'
Later that year, the base command opened an investigation into the hazing, and Valdivia became a target of that investigation. Navy documents say when members of the canine unit were called in for questioning, Valdivia walked out of her interview and told a supervisor, "They're accusing me."
Chris Young, who stayed in touch with his daughter through phone calls and e-mails, says she was concerned: "They were looking for a scapegoat, and they were trying to pin it on Jennifer."
As the investigation dragged on, Valdivia decided she wanted out. In December 2006, she told her chain of command she planned to resign from the Navy.
"She even had a ticket booked — I had a ticket confirmation on the computer," Young says. "She was going to be a physical trainer in Dallas. She was set up. I liked that she would be closer to home."
But Navy spokesman Bill Fenick told Youth Radio that in January 2007, just weeks before her planned departure, her superiors told Valdivia she couldn't leave the base because "it was important to look further into her involvement."
Valdivia's superiors also told her they were removing her from her position as kennel master. One superior told Valdivia not to worry because she was not the most senior person involved in the allegations.
Did The Stress Lead To Suicide?
The next day, security cameras filmed Valdivia at the Navy commissary buying a bag of charcoal, a fire starter kit and a grill.
In the late afternoon, Valdivia locked herself into a room that adjoined her housing unit. As the charcoal burned and filled the room with smoke, she kept a suicide journal. Her final entry reads, "I love the military. I just wish the Navy was still part of it."
It took investigators four days to find her body.
A Navy autopsy concluded that Valdivia died of carbon monoxide poisoning. At the end of the report on Valdivia's death, the investigator wrote that her suicide was "probably a culmination of well-concealed concerns about the ongoing command investigation. ...I believe it is unlikely she would have committed suicide if she had not been under such stress."
Valdivia's father says he still has questions about what led his daughter to commit suicide. He wants the Navy to reopen the investigation into her death.
This story is the work of reporter Rachel Krantz of Youth Radio, a news organization based in Oakland, Calif., that teaches journalism to young people.
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