Jurors return mixed verdicts in soldier hazing case
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: November 21, 2012
Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel said that, despite his best efforts, he failed Pvt. Danny Chen.
Van Bockel was convicted late Tuesday of hazing Chen, a soldier who committed suicide while under his command in Afghanistan last year; being derelict in duty by allowing Chen to be hazed by others; and maltreating Chen by calling him by racially disparaging names and forcing him to speak Chinese instead of English.
Chen, 19, of New York, killed himself in a guard tower at Combat Outpost Palace in southern Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2011.
Van Bockel, 27, of Aberdeen, S.D., is one of eight soldiers charged in connection with Chen's death and the seventh to be court-martialed.
He now faces four years, nine months in prison, total forfeiture of pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge.
Following a marathon day of proceedings that began at 9 a.m. and ended just before 10:30 p.m., jurors convicted Van Bockel of most specifications he was accused of, but found him not guilty of maltreating Chen by forcing him to low crawl and by tying sandbags to his arms.
Lawyers in the case will make their final arguments this morning at 8 before jurors deliberate on a sentence.
Speaking to jurors after he was convicted, Van Bockel said he experienced the best and worst points of his life during his Army career, but said he did not regret enlisting.
Van Bockel thanked the court and his family and apologized to the family of Chen.
"I'm deeply sorry for your loss," he said. "I was honored to have served with him. I shall remember him as a fellow soldier that I was proud to serve with."
Officials have said Chen was driven to suicide by the harassment and torment of his fellow soldiers on Combat Outpost Palace, where Van Bockel served as Chen's squad leader.
Prosecutors alleged that Van Bockel failed to prevent the ill treatment of the young private, who arrived in Afghanistan shortly after completing basic training.
Maj. Joshua Toman said Chen, as the lowest ranking soldier on the outpost, had no recourse and instead had to take the treatment in hopes that he would become part of the team.
Toman said Chen was subjected to mistreatment because he was new and quickly became a favorite target of a select group of soldiers, including several noncommissioned officers.
Van Bockel's civilian lawyer, Colby C. Vokey, argued that prosecutors had cherry-picked a handful of instances, many of which Van Bockel was not aware of, and were disregarding the bigger picture.
He said Van Bockel cared about his soldiers, including Chen, and defended the use of some of the racial nicknames as a way for infantry soldiers to bond in a part of Afghanistan where they came under constant attack.
"This is not some elite tea party," Vokey said. "This is the infantry in the middle of Afghanistan."
Vokey said Van Bockel was unaware of the more egregious acts against Chen.
Vokey said the corrective punishment Chen endured was necessary and suggested that extra push-ups or being made to low-crawl were meant to improve Chen as a soldier.
"It's a hell of a lot better than what some of these boys did while they were out patrolling," Vokey said. "And there's nobody shooting at him."
Toman said no effort was made to help Chen overcome his deficiencies because other soldiers preferred having Chen stay on base to perform chores and pull guard duty.
Following his conviction, several former soldiers who served with Van Bockel testified on his behalf and complimented his skills as a soldier.
Van Bockel told jurors about many of the horrors he witnessed as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan and spoke of the effects of the more than 10 improvised explosive blasts he was a part of.
Van Bockel's mother, Virginia Pahl, also addressed jurors, telling them of her pride in her son.
"My son did his duty," Pahl said. "He put his life on the line every single day."