Master Chief Machinist's Mate (SS) Charles Berry was fired as chief of the guided-missile submarine Florida for not doing anything to prevent anti-gay hazing on the sub. (Navy)
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As they waited on May 27, 2011, for their mandatory training on the lifting of the ban on gays serving openly to begin, the unoccupied petty officers started taunting their 19-year-old sailor again with gay slurs.
"When can we meet your boyfriend?" one asked.
"Hey, Brokeback, you will be able to come out of the closet in a few months," another said, referring to the movie "Brokeback Mountain" about two gay men.
For months, out of earshot of their chief and division officer, sailors on the guided-missile submarine Florida's gold crew relentlessly hazed their young shipmate. They called him names. They left offensive drawings on his rack and in his work space. They joked that he had a "Filipino boyfriend." At one point, a shipmate punched him.
This harassment came to a head in August, when the sailor, upset with his treatment and unable to stop it, wrote a two-page suicide note. He was immediately evaluated by a counselor and was later reassigned off the submarine. A subsequent investigation revealed that over the eight months of harassment, which includes the four-month deployment when Florida fired cruise missiles into Libya, this behavior flourished and went unreported among the crew.
"A culture of hazing and sexual harassment did exist onboard from January through August 2011, which enabled the unreported hazing and sexual harassment of [redacted] to occur," Capt. Stephen Gillespie, commanding officer of Submarine Squadron 16, wrote in his endorsing letter to the report, which was obtained by Navy Times via a Freedom of Information Act request. Officials blacked out names and titles from the report.
This largely unchecked verbal abuse the Navy's first high-profile case of anti-gay harassment since 2010, when a squadron gave an ensign what he felt was a demeaning call sign comes as Congress ratchets up pressure on the services to stamp out hazing, which "can be verbal or psychological in nature," per the Navy's definition.
Five sailors, including the boat's top enlisted man, ultimately received nonjudicial punishment from this incident. But those actions came too late to resuscitate the once-enthusiastic young sailor's chances on Florida; he was transferred to another command, which Navy officials wouldn't release for privacy considerations.
Upset that the harassment hadn't stopped or been investigated until the sailor's suicide note, Gillespie fired the chief of the boat, Master Chief Machinist's Mate (SS) Charles Berry, on March 30.
Berry, who knew of the harassment, should have informed his CO and known that an investigation was required, concluded Gillespie, who added that Berry had tried to solve the issue at his level and hadn't tried to "hide" the issue.
"However, his failure to inform the chain of command prevented potential leadership back-up, limited follow-up on the situation, prevented a full investigation into the hazing and ultimately contributed to [redacted] unplanned loss from the ship," Gillespie wrote.
Berry, who has been reassigned to Submarine Squadron 16, did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Both the commanding officer and executive officer were "held accountable through appropriate administrative action," said Submarine Group 10 spokesman Lt. Brian Wierzbicki.
Alleged attack breeds rumors
The sailor's teasing initially stemmed from a liberty incident in Diego Garcia, where the crew flew in December 2010 to take over their submarine. The sailor, most likely a machinist's mate fresh from "A" school, had reported to the boat only a month before. On Jan. 8, he was on liberty, drinking at a local bar, when a Filipino man suggested they go into the village to meet a woman. But instead, according to the sailor, the worker lured him to a residence where he tried to sexually assault him at knife point. The sailor hurled his heavy backpack at the man and bolted.
The sailor ran to a bar and told his shipmates that the man had tried to rape him, but he didn't initially report this as an assault to his command.
Then came the scuttlebutt. In the days and weeks and months that followed, crew members and fellow sailors in Auxiliary Division mocked him mercilessly. One division-mate drew a crude depiction of two stick figures having anal intercourse and put it on his mattress. Others made crude jokes about him having sex with Filipino transvestites. While sailors were nice to him one on one, in groups they harassed him, with each jibe fueling another.
At first, the sailor handled the taunting stoically. His father, who had been a submariner, warned him that he would have to "grin and bear it" until he got his qualifications, according to the investigation.
But the taunts didn't let up. At one point, a division leader admonished the division to stop harassing him. Instead of stopping, the teasers just waited until the chief and division officer were gone to start up again.
"The members of [redacted] division who harassed and hazed [redacted] saw this joking and daily banter as a rite of passage," according to the investigation, which noted these sailors "underestimated the negative psychological impact" the joking had on their shipmate.
During the deployment, the sailor had been an exemplary shipmate. He was a "hot runner" on his qualifications, according to the investigation, and characterized him as "personable, highly intelligent, well spoken, well groomed and athletic." But the berating which stopped short of bullying, investigators concluded took its toll.
He fell behind in his quals. He grew despondent, unable to stop his harassers. The last straw was in August, when a civilian with the refit facility teased him about his liberty incident.
That "pushed him over the edge," the investigator concluded. He was moved off the boat two months later.