Platoon sergeant gets demotion in Chen suicide case, no prison time
The Fayetteville Observer
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Staff Sgt. Blaine Dugas will lose a rank, but will not have to spend any time in prison after being convicted during a Special Court-Martial on Fort Bragg.
Dugas, a platoon sergeant with the Fort Wainwright, Alaska-based unit of Pvt. Danny Chen, was convicted during the two-day proceeding of using alcohol in a combat zone and dereliction of duty.
Dugas, 36, of Port Arthur, Texas, is the third of eight soldiers in Chen's unit to be court-martialed in connection with Chen's suicide in Afghanistan last year.
Army officials have said Chen, 19, of New York, was driven to suicide by weeks of hazing and racially tinged abuse.
The military judge, Col. James E. Hardin, sentenced Dugas to a demotion to sergeant and three months in prison, but gave Dugas credit for 90 days in prison based on unlawful pretrial punishment.
The sentence outraged some supporters of the Chen family.
Elizabeth OuYang, president of the Organization of Chinese-Americans New York, said she was disappointed that Dugas was not given a bad conduct discharge.
"As the senior enlisted officer, his failure to ensure the physical well-being of Private Chen cost Danny his life," OuYang said. "No senior enlisted officer should turn a blind eye to racist abuse and hazing by superiors. His light sentence, particularly allowing him to remain the the military, sends the wrong message."
Chen was subjected to racial taunts and excessive corrective punishment during the six weeks before his death Oct. 3, prosecutors said.
They alleged that Dugas fostered an environment that allowed the maltreatment.
But Hardin only found Dugas guilty of neglecting to ensure Chen's physical well-being and failing to supervise and monitor the corrective training imposed on him.
Dugas was facing a maximum of a year in prison.
One of his lawyers, former Marine Lt. Col. Guy Womack, said he was pleased that Dugas would be able to resume his Army career and said he is firmly convinced that Dugas did not contribute to Chen's death.
Womack also said that Dugas had effectively lost two ranks, because he had been eligible to be promoted to sergeant first class.
In their final arguments, prosecutors had asked the military judge to strip Dugas of his rank and right to wear an Army uniform. They also asked for unspecified prison time.
Prosecutor Sasha Rutizer said Dugas was a failure as a leader.
"He failed Danny Chen,'' Rutizer said. "He failed everybody in his unit.''
"He is not a noncommissioned officer, and he ought not to be a noncommissioned officer," she added.
Womack, however, argued that Dugas had been punished enough when he was separated from his unit and stripped of his weapon while awaiting trial in Afghanistan.
Womack said those actions and others were humiliating and unnecessary.
That punishment served as the basis for the 90 days of credit Dugas received in the case.
In his closing arguments, Womack argued that Dugas was unaware of the hazing and maltreatment prosecutors alleged.
He said the racial slurs that Chen's fellow soldiers called him in Afghanistan could have been viewed as "terms of endearment."
"These are not people sitting in a library in Utah. These are people at war," Womack said.
He added that it wasn't Dugas' job to make the deployment "feel like a vacation."
But Womack also said his heart goes out to the Chen family.
"I can't imagine a worse thing as a parent than to lose a son," he said while describing the case as "tragic."
Dugas was also convicted of violating a lawful general order, a charge to which he pleaded guilty.
That charge related to his drinking vodka in Afghanistan.
Dugas also admitted to encouraging a subordinate soldier that he had been drinking with to throw a fragmentation grenade, an action that prosecutors argued put soldiers at risk.
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.
Seven of the trials are being held on Fort Bragg because the soldiers fell under the command of the 82nd Airborne Division while deployed.
Sgt. Adam Holcomb was convicted of maltreatment and sentenced to 30 days in prison, the loss of one rank and the forfeiture of more than $1,100 after a seven-day trial. Spc. Ryan Offutt pleaded guilty to hazing and mistreating Chen and 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 was the first soldier in the case to be charged in a Special Court-Martial.
Less serious than a General Court-Martial, Womack said the convictions were equivalent to misdemeanor convictions in civilian courts.