FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Who is responsible for the death of Pvt. Danny Chen?
Was it solely Chen himself, by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his isolated desert base in Afghanistan?
Or did his fellow soldiers hound Chen to his death at age 19 — kicking the Chinese American soldier, hitting him with rocks and shaming him with racial slurs?
Those questions will be probed this week at Fort Bragg, where the first court-martial opened Tuesday in connection with Chen’s apparent suicide on Oct. 3, 2011. The Army says Chen killed himself by a single shot under his chin in a guard tower at a combat outpost in rural Kandahar Province.
Sgt. Adam Holcomb, one of eight soldiers charged in the case, sat impassively as military prosecutors accused him of calling Chen “Dragon lady” and “egg roll,” and dragging Chen across sharp rocks. Holcomb, 30, is charged with negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, assault and other counts. He faces nearly 18 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
Chen’s death and the accusations of hazing and racial slurs outraged the Chinese American community in New York’s Chinatown, where Chen grew up with his immigrant parents. Asian-American activists mounted protests there last fall, and Chen’s parents have accused the Army of failing to protect their son. They also question the Army’s suicide ruling.
The case has renewed the focus on allegations of hazing and racism in the military; the Pentagon in January reiterated its long-standing policy banning any form of hazing.
On Tuesday, journalists from China and activists from New York packed into a courthouse at Ft. Bragg to hear prosecutors and defense lawyers offer sharply divergent versions of Chen’s final days.
In opening statements, government lawyers told a panel of 10 officers and non-commissioned officers that Holcomb’s alleged abuse drove Chen to suicide. They said Chen was tormented and hazed for several weeks before his death.
The defense said Chen was a woefully unfit soldier who killed himself after his parents disowned him for joining the military.
In questioning prospective panel members Tuesday, lawyers for both sides focused on hazing prohibitions, soldier nicknames, combat stress and “corrective training” — the permitted disciplining of soldiers for minor infractions.
“Private Danny Chen was assaulted and subjected to racial harassment by the accused,” a prosecutor, Capt. Blake Doughty, told the panel. “And that led to his death . . . Private Chen ultimately made the decision to commit suicide.”
A military defense lawyer, Capt. Dennis Hernon, conceded that Holcomb called Chen “Dragon lady” but said he was administering push-ups and other “corrective training” to Chen after the private failed to follow orders to turn off a water heater for the unit’s rationed hot showers.
“Private Chen is not dead because he was made to do sit-ups or push-ups or because he was called Dragon Lady,” Hernon said.
“Only one person was responsible for the death of Private Danny Chen,” he added, “... and that person is Private Danny Chen.”
Hernon called Chen “a failure as an infantryman” and said he had told fellow soldiers: “I just found out my parents disowned me because I joined the Army.”
Chen’s mother, sobbing and wiping her eyes, bitterly denied that she and her husband had disowned their son, testifying through a translator that they maintained a close, loving relationship after he deployed to Afghanistan last summer.
Su Zhen Chen said she and her husband were disappointed when their son joined the Army rather than going to college. But, she said, they were proud of his service and denied that he had told others he had been disowned.
“He would not say that!” Chen said during cross-examination. “Why would I disown my only son?”
The defense said testimony would show that Chen was a poor soldier who needed frequent corrective training, and that nicknames — even a few racially offensive ones — were common in tightly knit combat units.
When Holcomb dragged Chen from his bunk to discipline him over the water heater, he didn’t realize he was dragging the private across sharp rocks, Hernon said. As soon as Holcomb realized that the rocks had cut into Chen’s back, he took the private for medical treatment, Hernon said.
Elizabeth R. OuYang, president of the New York chapter of OCA (formerly called the Organization of Chinese-Americans), said outside the courthouse that the Army had failed Pvt. Chen and must now be held accountable. OuYang acts as a spokeswoman for the Chens, whose English is poor.
“Their son cannot rest in peace until those responsible for his death are brought to justice,” OuYang said. “A strong signal must be sent here.”
The court-marital of Holcomb, who roomed with Chen on the outpost and was superior in rank, is expected to last through this week. Courts-martial for the other seven soldiers, including an officer, are scheduled for later this year.
The soldiers were members of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division from Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Most of the courts-martial are to be held at Fort Bragg because the brigade was under the command of the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg.