Chen's father, colleagues testify at harassment court-martial
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Friends and colleagues of Pvt. Danny Chen described him as a quiet and shy soldier who had difficulties adjusting to the grind of war in a tiny American base near the Pakistan border.
They also said he dealt with constant name-calling at the hands of other soldiers and was often punished.
Seven soldiers who were stationed at Combat Outpost Palace in Afghanistan testified Wednesday in the court-martial of Sgt. Adam Holcomb.
Holcomb, 30, of Youngstown, Ohio, is the first of eight soldiers to be tried in the death of Chen, who officials said was driven to commit suicide following weeks of hazing and harassment because of his Chinese heritage.
Holcomb is charged with negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, communicating a threat, assault, dereliction of duty, two specifications of maltreatment of a subordinate and four specifications of violating a lawful general regulation.
If convicted of all charges, he faces 17 years, nine months in prison.
Chen, 19, of New York, deployed to Afghanistan last summer as a replacement for a Fort Wainwright, Alaska-based platoon that was then deployed to southwest Kandahar province.
Officials have said he shot himself in a guard tower on Oct. 3.
Pfc. Joshua Morgan, who described himself as a good friend of Chen's, said Holcomb often called Chen "Dragon Lady" and "egg roll."
Another soldier, Spc. Lucio Guerrero, said he saw the scars on Chen's back from an incident where Holcomb, Chen's roommate and superior, dragged him across baseball-sized rocks.
Pfc. Adrian Douglas testified that he tried to befriend Chen, who had difficulty adjusting to the unit.
Douglas said he once found Chen sleeping outside because, he was told, Holcomb had told him he "wasn't worthy" to sleep inside.
He said he found the nicknames for Chen offensive and refrained from using them.
"I just felt like he had a hard enough time already. I didn't want to pick on him any further," Douglas said. "He said it made him angry sometimes, but he couldn't really do anything about it."
Douglas said Chen was ostracized for being new and said that, while it was normal for lower enlisted soldiers to receive corrective punishment, he felt that Chen was punished more often than others.
"He was punished for small things. They were a lot more strict," Douglas said. "It seemed somewhat obvious. You hardly ever saw people by themselves on detail. Chen was almost always by himself."
Spc. Justin Christiansen agreed that he thought Chen was punished more than others.
Christiansen said it often was unclear why Chen was being punished.
If someone was to ask, it would only invite punishment on themselves, he said.
"As a private, the first thing you learn is to not watch someone else when they're in trouble," he said.
Holcomb's lawyers have contended that Chen performed poorly in Afghanistan and put himself and his fellow soldiers at risk by falling asleep during guard duty and forgetting key tools.
Christiansen, however, said it was not uncommon to fall asleep on guard shifts, which often stretched well over 12 hours.
But one of the unit's non-commissioned officers, Staff Sgt. Darren Holt, said he saw nothing wrong with the treatment of Chen, although he did talk to Holcomb after learning of the incident where Chen was dragged.
"Infantry guys, we get rough with each other," Holt said. "I just didn't think it was that serious."
All of the soldiers who testified said they did not see Chen's apparent suicide coming and described him as a generally cheerful soldier.
But one soldier testified that he was almost driven to suicide by Holcomb earlier in the deployment.
Pvt. Marcus Merritt, who is African-American, testified that he was called a racial slur - a variation of the n-word - while he was stationed at Combat Outpost Palace before Chen's arrival.
Merritt said he also was threatened by Holcomb, but he did not take it seriously.
Merritt, who is getting ready to leave the Army, did not return to Afghanistan because he went absent without leave following a trip back to the United States.
He has been allowed to stay in the military, in part, so he could testify in this case, officials said.
Merritt said he did not want to return to Afghanistan because he feared what he might have done to himself or others.
He also testified that he smoked marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress symptoms that he said were caused by Holcomb.
"All of the stuff he did had a long-lasting effect," Merritt testified. "I thought if I went back I would do something - harm myself or someone else.
"He abused his power," Merritt said while describing regular harassment from Holcomb.
Holcomb's lawyers argued that Merritt never told a mental health worker about Holcomb, but Merritt countered by saying that, for some reason, Holcomb's name was left out of the report.
"I told the therapist I wanted to kill Sgt. Holcomb, sir," he said.
Earlier in the day, Chen's father, Yan Tao Chen, testified.
The elder Chen said he was close with his son and proud when he joined the military.
He reiterated testimony from his wife from the court-martial's first day, repeatedly saying the family had never considered trying to sue the Army for money related to their son's death.
Yan Tao Chen also denied defense allegations that the Chen family had disowned their son prior to his deployment.