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Harassment of Chen was frequent, soldiers say at court-martial

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The harassment of Pvt. Danny Chen was a near-daily occurrence in the weeks leading up to his death, according to soldiers who testified in a court-martial Thursday.

But Chen's platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Blaine Dugas, never knew what was going on at the tiny combat outpost in southern Afghanistan, according to one of his lawyers.

Dugas is the third soldier from Chen's Fort Wainwright, Alaska-based platoon to stand trial on charges related to his death.

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Chen, 19, of New York, committed suicide Oct. 3 at Combat Outpost Palace, according to Army officials.

Dugas, 36, of Port Arthur, Texas, is accused in three specifications of dereliction of duty of failing to prevent the mistreatment and abuse that officials said drove Chen to suicide.

He's also accused of making a false official statement to investigators during the probe into mistreatment at Combat Outpost Palace.

According to Criminal Investigation Command agents, Dugas lied when he told them he was not aware of any mistreatment of Chen.

And finally, Dugas was also charged with violating a lawful general order, a crime to which Dugas has pleaded guilty.

That charge pertains to the illegal possession and use of alcohol, namely vodka.

Dugas is being tried in a special court-martial, which means the maximum prison time he can receive is one year.

Sgt. 1st Class Thomas O'Sullivan, Dugas' company first sergeant, testified that Dugas was responsible for making sure his soldiers were taken care of. O'Sullivan said Dugas' responsibility was even more important because they were in a combat zone.

Nine soldiers and two criminal investigators testified Thursday, with many describing the regular abuse of Chen, which came in the form of racial slurs and excessive corrective training.

No one could testify that they ever saw Dugas witness any of the alleged abuse, but prosecutors contend the outpost was so small that Dugas should have been aware of the abuse.

Capt. Sasha Rutizer, a prosecutor, said Dugas inevitably knew of the abuse but did nothing.

"He had an obligation to provide an environment free of degradation," she said in her opening argument. "Because he was so derelict in his duties. . Because he lied. . Evil triumphed."

Guy Womack, a former Marine lieutenant colonel and military judge who now works as a civilian lawyer in Houston, argued on behalf of Dugas.

He said that Dugas, as well as any other member of the chain of command, could not have read Chen's mind.

Womack said Dugas was unaware of any issues and did nothing to create or allow the environment that officials allege led to Chen's suicide.

Spc. Ryan Offutt, who was convicted Monday of hazing and mistreating Chen, testified about multiple incidents of the abuse, but appeared to waffle between the questioning of prosecutors and Dugas' lawyers.

Offutt repeatedly agreed with both sides about the severity and purpose of the corrective training, often in a seemingly contradictory way.

Sgt. Adam Holcomb, the other soldier who has been convicted of mistreating Chen, could also testify in the case.

Eight soldiers from Chen's unit were charged following Chen's death, which has received national and international media attention.

Chen shot himself in a guard tower at his unit's small outpost in Afghanistan.

Officials said he took his life following weeks of abuse related to his Chinese-American heritage, but defense lawyers at the previous courts-martial have said Chen's troubles centered on his poor military performance and family problems.

They presented evidence that the Chen family had disowned their son, which the Chen family has repeatedly denied.

The trials are being held on Fort Bragg because the soldiers fell under the command of the 82nd Airborne Division while deployed.

Holcomb was sentenced to 30 days in prison, the loss of one rank and the forfeiture of more than $1,100 after a seven-day trial. Offutt was sentenced to six months in prison, demotion to private and a bad conduct discharge following a plea agreement.

Both avoided convictions on the most serious charge levied against the soldiers: negligent homicide.

Dugas is one of two of the soldiers who do not face a negligent homicide charge.

At the start of the court-martial, he told military judge Col. James E. Hardin that he knew it was wrong to drink the vodka, which another soldier received in a care package.

Dugas also admitted to suggesting that the other soldier throw a fragmentation grenade over the compound wall.

For violating the order, Dugas faces a bad conduct discharge, up to a year in prison, demotion to private and the forfeiture of three-fourths of his pay for 12 months.

The prosecution will resume its case this morning at 7:30.

brooksd@fayobserver.com
 

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