Trial of soldiers accused of hazing Pvt. Danny Chen draws national interest
Danny Chen was tall and lanky, a smart young man from New York who joined the Army after high school because it was his dream.
That dream ended Oct. 3 when Chen, an Army private, died of a self-inflicted gunshot in a guard tower in Afghanistan.
At a small combat outpost in Kandahar province, military authorities have said, Chen - the son of Chinese immigrants - was taunted, harassed and punished by fellow soldiers, in part, because of his ancestry.
According to court documents, Chen was assaulted with kicks to his thighs and torso. He was forced to low crawl along gravel, dragged from his tent and had sandbags tied to each of his arms.
From August until his death, soldiers with Chen's platoon peppered him with insults related to his race, calling him "Dragon Lady," "Fortune Cookie" and similar names, documents say.
This week, the first of eight soldiers accused of driving Chen to suicide will stand trial on Fort Bragg.
Sgt. Adam Holcomb is charged with negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, communicating a threat, assault, dereliction of duty, two counts of maltreatment of a subordinate and four counts of violating a lawful general regulation. Jury selection in his court-martial is scheduled to begin Tuesday.
The others charged are: 1st Lt. Daniel Schwartz, Staff Sgt. Blaine Dugas, Staff Sgt. Andrew Van Bockel, Sgt. Jeffrey Hurst, Sgt. Travis Carden, Spc. Thomas Curtis and Spc. Ryan Offutt.
All but Carden will be tried on Fort Bragg. He will face a court-martial in Alaska.
Documents explaining the charges against the soldiers detail an environment where officials said soldiers were allowed to haze and harass other soldiers. At least three other soldiers, all ranked lower than specialist, are listed as victims of various abuses at the hands of the soldiers.
The charges range from the most serious, negligent homicide, to assault and dereliction of duty.
All of the soldiers involved were assigned to a Fort Wainwright, Alaska, unit when Chen died, but they are being tried at Fort Bragg because they fell under the command of a Fort Bragg general in Afghanistan.
Military authorities have said that Chen suffered racial taunts and physical abuse at the hands of soldiers in his company and that his commanding officers failed to report at least some of the harassment.
"This is a case of national significance and people are watching it closely," said New York City Council member Margaret S. Chin. "Investigators have confirmed that Private Chen was a victim of egregious maltreatment prior to his death. If the Army has zero tolerance for bullying and hazing, as they claim to, then they need to prosecute these eight individuals to the fullest extent of the law."
The case is unusual in that it could possibly hold soldiers criminally responsible for another's suicide.
And, while the case is a step toward closure for the Chen family, said a New York activist who plans to attend the trial, it's also a clarion call to address racism and bullying within the military.
The Chen case was tragic, but it also is a sign of a culture that has spiraled out of control, said Elizabeth OuYang, president of the Organization for Chinese Americans - New York.
"This (hazing) has been happening for centuries, but this one hits a particularly raw nerve," OuYang said. "Any of our sons and daughters, neighbors or classmates can be Danny Chen. All because of the shape of our eyes and the color of our skin."
"This goes beyond just justice for Danny Chen," she said.
OuYang, who also works as a civil rights lawyer and an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, said Chen chose to join the military and risked his life for his country only to become the victim of appalling treatment.
She was among the activists who called for the courts-martial to be held in the mainland United States.
"Those responsible must be held accountable," she said. "It is imperative we be able to see the faces of the people involved and that they see our faces."
OuYang said she plans to travel to Fort Bragg from New York on Monday with 30 colleagues.
At Fort Bragg's courthouse on Normandy Drive, the spectators will see a trial that is anything but clear cut, a former prosecutor said.
Paul Dubbeling, a former Army prosecutor who has worked on cases on Fort Bragg but has no involvement with the Chen cases, said the lawyers prosecuting Holcomb and the other soldiers will need to link a specific act or failure to Chen's death.
And if prosecutors are seeking the maximum sentence - Fort Bragg officials said Holcomb faces up to 17 years, nine months in prison - they also will need to show that Chen's suicide was somehow foreseeable.
"If you want to convince a jury that someone is criminally liable, you're going to have to say something more than, 'He's in charge and so he's responsible,' " Dubbeling said.
The case could attract more attention than any other in recent years on Fort Bragg. Groups from New York, members of Chen's family, spectators and more than a dozen media outlets are expected to attend.
Chen was never stationed at Fort Bragg. The trials were moved to the military installation, in part, because of the attention the case has received.
In southern Afghanistan, Chen's unit, part of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, served under a Fort Bragg commander, Maj. Gen. James L. Huggins of the 82nd Airborne Division.
And Fort Bragg is one of the few military installations capable of supporting a trial with this much interest, officials said.
The interest in the Chen case began shortly after his funeral, when Asian-American organizations and elected officials began calling for a swift and thorough investigation.
The 19-year-old Chinatown native died alone in the guard tower in Kandahar province, according to officials. Since his funeral there have been candlelight vigils, marches by hundreds of supporters and a deluge of letters to politicians.
"Private Chen's death was not a simple suicide," U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, a Democrat from New York, said in December, after learning that charges had been filed in the case. "There's clearly more going on here, and Danny's family needs to know exactly what happened."
"This is just the beginning," she said. "We won't rest until the truth comes out and those involved are held accountable."
Velázquez was among several politicians who introduced anti-hazing legislation as a result of Chen's death.
Her Service Member Anti-Hazing Act is in the House Armed Services Committee, but some provisions of the bill were passed in an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act earlier this year.
The amendment allows suspected victims of hazing an expedited transfer from their units.
Velázquez said the provision provides a release valve for victims who could otherwise be trapped in a dangerous situation, especially if their superiors are turning a blind eye.
"It is incumbent on all of us to ensure the young men and women who volunteer to serve our nation are treated with respect and honor," Velázquez said. "This amendment will help protect our troops from mistreatment."
"While many steps should have been taken to save Danny Chen, it is highly likely that if Private Chen had swiftly transferred out of his unit after the hazing started, he would be with us today," she said.
Since his funeral, the Organization for Chinese Americans, other groups and various politicians have pressed the Department of Defense to bring Chen's tormentors to justice while working to prevent future incidents.
In May, supporters of Velázquez's legislation traveled to Washington, D.C., delivering more than 9,000 birthday cards on what would have been Chen's 20th birthday, according to media reports.
The birthday messages originated in 25 states and nine countries, according to OuYang. They included celebrities like filmmaker Spike Lee, fellow soldiers and school children.
In statements following Chen's death, military leaders from Gen. Martin Dempsey to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta condemned hazing within the military.
Army officials said they could not comment on the specifics of the Chen cases, but a spokesman, Capt. John Kirby, previously said there was a zero tolerance policy for hazing in the armed services.
"Any single case of hazing or inappropriate conduct to a fellow soldier, airman, Marine, sailor, Coast Guardsman is inappropriate and not acceptable," he said. "Zero is the right number. We treat each other with dignity and respect. That's what this uniform requires. And when we don't, there's a justice system in place to deal with it. And that's what ... we're seeing here in the case of Private Chen."