Lt. Derek de Jong, a Royal Canadian Navy officer accused of leaving his post during a military operation, pleaded guilty Monday to desertion when he appeared at his court martial in Halifax.
In his sentence hearing, de Jong told the court he was harassed during the month he was at sea with HMCS Preserver.
A steady stream of witnesses testified at the hearing, followed by de Jong himself.
De Jong told the court that during the month he was at sea with HMCS Preserver he followed the rules but experienced harassment.
He said that one night a female officer came into his cabin and urinated on his cabin floor. He said he took his complaint of the incident up the line but no one listened.
"The workplace was toxic after the urination incident," he said. "It's not a norm in Canadian society that we treat each other this way."
He admitted to leaving that ship in September 2012.
"What I did was wrong. I know I had a responsibility to my ship. I knew I had a responsibility to my crew. I had a responsibility to the public."
He has been back for a couple of years working at CFB Halifax.
De Jong apologized and said he regrets what he did.
"I will never leave a unit again," he said.
De Jong's wife, Maria, said she hopes the court and judge will hear allegations of his harassment and take that into consideration.
His sentencing hearing will resume Tuesday with his cross-examination.
De Jong had left HMCS Preserver in September 2012 while it was docked in Key West, Fla., and was subsequently charged with being absent without leave. On that same trip, there was an investigation into widespread drunkenness among sailors from different countries.
A military prosecutor handling the case bumped the charge to desertion — one of the most serious charges in the military. A conviction carries the possibility of imprisonment, demotion, a $10,000 fine or dismissal from the military. The maximum sentence is life in prison.
Capt. Angus Topshee, base commander for CFB Halifax, was at the court martial Monday morning.
“It’s an unusual case. People know that he left the ship and the allegation is desertion, so there’s some curiosity to see the exact circumstances in the case.” he said.
“The allegations that have been in the media are harassment — that concerns us greatly.”
There have only been a handful of desertion cases since the Second World War. The Department of National Defence said there has only been one conviction between 2000 and 2010.
De Jong harassed, says wife
Maria de Jong, his wife, told CBC News her husband suffered harassment at work while serving as a logistics officer aboard the supply ship HMCS Preserver.
One incident involved the drunk female officer who allegedly urinated on the floor of de Jong's cabin.
Maria de Jong said her husband became the butt of jokes after that incident. One superior officer, according to de Jong, told him, "Some men have to pay for that kind of service."
She said her husband felt micromanaged and belittled by a superior officer. She said he also felt pressured to look the other way when financial accounting rules were not being followed. De Jong declined to provide any details about those allegations.
De Jong told CBC News her husband complained to his superiors on board, but nothing changed. She said he flew home from the ship to take his complaints up the chain of command and turned himself in as soon as he returned to Halifax.
She said his complaints of harassment — as well as a letter she sent to the chief of defence staff — have been ignored.
The Department of National Defence told CBC News it won't comment while a case is before the military justice system.
De Jong said her husband had a chance to plead guilty to the charge of being absent without leave in an informal summary process before the commander of CFB Halifax.
He was told his punishment could be as minor as a $1 fine.
De Jong said her husband was warned that if he chose a court martial, military prosecutors could pursue a stricter charge — such as desertion.
She said her husband elected a court martial so he could air his complaints in public.