Pvt. Danny Chen killed himself not knowing of planned transfer
The Los Angeles Times
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Pvt. Danny Chen, a Chinese American infantryman who prosecutors say was hazed and abused by fellow platoon members in Afghanistan, was scheduled to be moved out of the unit less than two days after he killed himself last Oct. 3, his company commander testified at a court-martial Saturday.
Capt. Sean Allred said Chen was to be removed from the unit because he was performing poorly as a soldier and was unfit for combat at the dangerous outpost. Allred said he was unaware that Chen was suicidal or that platoon members were accused of hazing the private and humiliating him with ethnic slurs.
Allred said he would have immediately provided help for Chen if he’d known how troubled he was. “I wish that information had been provided to me,” the captain said.
Chen did not know about the transfer plans, according to testimony.
One of Chen’s superiors, Sgt. Adam Holcomb, is accused of hounding Chen, 19, into committing suicide. Holcomb is the first to face a court-martial among the eight soldiers charged in connection with Chen’s death.
Allred’s testimony came as the defense concluded its case on the fifth day of testimony after calling 17 witnesses. The final defense witness, a military forensic psychologist, set off a long afternoon of dueling expert witnesses as each side tried to bolster its version of what prompted Chen to kill himself.
The prosecution contends that Holcomb caused the suicide by punishing Chen for no legitimate reason, dragging him across rocky ground and addressing him with ethnic slurs. The defense said Chen killed himself because he had utterly failed as an infantryman and because his immigrant parents had disowned him for joining the Army.
Holcomb, 30, is charged with negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, assault and other counts.
Maj. Samantha Benesh, a defense forensic psychologist, said Chen was deeply troubled and depressed even before he arrived in Afghanistan last August because his family had disowned him. Serious conflict with family members is a recognized “stressor,” or risk factor, for suicide, Benesh testified.
Benesh said she reviewed the case file and Chen’s medical records and letters home, and has attended the court-martial.
Benesh said that many young, inexperienced soldiers like Chen misinterpret “corrective training” by superiors as unwarranted punishment or bullying. In fact, she said, most soldiers realize after they mature that the Army permits such discipline in order to improve soldiers’ performances — especially in combat zones.
Further, Benesh said, she could not conclude that Holcomb’s actions were the “proximate cause” of Chen’s suicide. On cross-examination, she conceded that she didn’t have enough information to conclude that the sergeant’s actions were not a proximate cause.
Benesh also said it “was possible” that harassment, racial slurs and physical confrontation of a hypothetical soldier could be a contributing factor to his decision to commit suicide.
A prosecution forensic psychologist, called as a rebuttal witness, said he saw “no red flags” in Chen’s pre-deployment medical assessment.
Capt. Kyle Grohmann said that after reviewing records and attending the court-martial, he concluded that Chen’s parents had not disowned him. Any family rift, he said, was “resolved” before Chen killed himself.
On cross-examination, Grohmann conceded that it was possible Chen had committed suicide because he had failed as a soldier. Asked if he could conclude that Holcomb’s actions caused Chen’s suicide, he responded, “No, I cannot.”
But both psychologists, who specialize in studying suicide, testified that it was not possible to form absolute conclusions about Chen’s suicide. The underlying reasons for most suicides are never determined, they said.
Chen shot himself under the chin with his automatic rifle in a guard tower at a remote combat outpost in Kandahar province.
Allred said he had been reprimanded and relieved of command for “dereliction of duty” and “failure to provide a positive command climate” in the Chen case — and for not following an order in an unrelated matter.
Chen’s cousin, Banny Chen, 18, testified that Chen’s parents had never disowned their son. In fact, he said, he had never heard of the concept in Chinese culture.
Both parents testified last week that they had not disowned Danny Chen.
Banny Chen said Danny’s mother, Su Zhen Chen, called him almost daily to ask what Banny had heard via Facebook from his cousin in Afghanistan. And Danny himself regularly asked how his mother and father were, Banny Chen said.
On Sept. 27, six days before killing himself, Danny Chen asked his cousin to have his mother send him snacks and new earphones. She bought the items the next day, Banny Chen testified.
Another of Danny Chen’s Facebook friends, Pfc. Alex Torres, testified that Chen told him in messages that his superiors were “being kind of bad to him.” Chen complained that he was being regularly “smoked,” or disciplined.
“Does the smoking ever stop?” Chen asked, according to Torres.
Chen’s back was bloodied when Holcomb dragged him from his bunk across 40 yards of rocky ground, witnesses have testified. Spc. Ronald Wyscaver testified Saturday that he was so upset when he saw Chen’s injured back that he urged Chen to report the incident. Chen did not.
One of the highest-ranking noncommissioned officers at the tiny outpost, Staff Sgt. Derrick Fox, testified that almost all discipline meted out to Chen by Holcomb and other sergeants was appropriate to correct such failings as sleeping on guard duty or forgetting his equipment. But on cross-examination, Fox conceded that dragging a soldier is “never appropriate.”
©2012 Los Angeles Times
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