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Cohen Pledges to Investigate Seaman's Suicide
Feb. 1997
by Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has promised a Pennsylvania couple a thorough investigation into the suicide death of their 21-year-old son following a Navy hazing incident in October 1995.

Dennis and Mary O'Brien were in the Capitol Hill audience Feb. 12 when Republican Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania interrupted Cohen's budget presentation to ask about Dennis O'Brien Jr.'s death.

"I share your anger and anxiety about the way in which this was handled," Cohen said. "The best we can offer right now is our deepest apologies for the way this was handled and then to pledge to [the parents] that we will get to the bottom of the investigation."

Cohen said "a breakdown in command" apparently led to O'Brien's suicide during the investigation of a hazing incident. Investigators tend to either "remain indifferent" to hazing allegations or go to the opposite extreme of "unprecedented zealotry," Cohen said. In this case, he said, "this young man became the victim of the investigation."

O'Brien was a machinist's mate aboard the attack submarine Los Angeles. DoD officials said he earned his submariner "dolphins" Oct. 13, 1995, following a long and arduous qualification. The day officials presented the qualification badge they noticed bruises on O'Brien's chest. Navy officials said they suspected an unauthorized pinning ceremony had occurred the night before. O'Brien refused to identify any participants. On Oct. 18, while aboard the submarine, O'Brien shot himself with a .45-caliber pistol.

During a press conference on Capitol Hill Feb. 13, O'Brien's parents said the chain of command persecuted their son who wanted him to reveal the names of crewmembers involved in the unauthorized ceremony.

Weldon said he has been looking into the case for a year and a half. O'Brien "lost his life not because of the hazing incident," Weldon said, "but because of the investigation of the hazing incident. He became a target instead of those who perpetrated the hazing. All the focus was on Dennis O'Brien, and he lost his life because of that."

The Navy thoroughly and aggressively reviewed the incident, according to Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon. "The problem was that they could not locate or identify people involved in an alleged hazing incident," he said. Bacon said all commanders have become more attuned to the need to combat hazing. The recent incidents have triggered "a real leadership concern among the military, and it's receiving top level attention now."

Cohen and Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were at the Capitol presenting DoD's fiscal 1998 budget before the House National Security Committee. Shalikashvili said DoD is already preparing standard guidelines against hazing in response to recent news accounts of violent "blood pinning" ceremonies among jump-qualified Marines.

"It is absolutely true, and [it] became apparent after the Marine Corps harassment incident that came to light, that we do not have standard guidance," Shalikashvili said. "Secretary Cohen asked me to look into it as soon as that arose. I replied to him by letter that that is one of the things we discovered and that we are going to provide proposed guidelines to him."