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Soldier on trial in Chen case says he tried to help the young private

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The soldier on trial in the case of Army Pvt. Danny Chen testified Monday that he had tried to take Chen under his wing the day he killed himself.

Staff Sgt. Andrew J. VanBockel said he took Chen aside and told him he would start going on patrols. Van Bockel said the offer was an attempt to make Chen feel like he was contributing more.

But not long after making the offer, Van Bockel testified, he had to admonish Chen for failing to appear for duty without proper equipment, including a helmet and water.

"I was so disappointed in him," Van Bockel said. "It seemed like every time Chen took a step forward he took a step back."

VanBockel was Chen's squad leader and the seventh of eight soldiers to face court-martial related to Chen's suicide in October 2011. The platoon was stationed at a small, Spartan outpost in a dangerous area of Afghanistan.

Van Bockel said he was not aware of most of the egregious punishments Chen had to endure in Afghanistan. He and several other soldiers testified about Chen's deficiencies and how corrective training was meant to make him a better soldier.

In earlier testimony this morning, a soldier who worked with Chen in Afghanistan last fall testified that he didn't think the struggling young soldier would kill himself.

"Honestly I saw him as just being a scared private," Sgt. William Zade said.

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Zade said Chen was too weak to carry his gear and had other problems. He recalled seeing Chen receive punishment, known as "corrective training."

Zade said there was an incident in which Chen couldn't be found anywhere. He said he and VanBockel and a third soldier searched for Chen for two hours and found him sleeping in a portable toilet.

"I don't think any of us would have thought he was having suicidal thoughts," Zade testified.

Zade's comment was noteworthy in part because the jury isn't supposed to know that Chen committed suicide. The judge ordered that it not be mentioned during the trial - any potential jurors who were aware of it were dismissed.

Defense lawyer Colby C. Vokey quickly cut off Zade from saying anything further about Chen's suicide and took the questioning onto other matters.

The soldiers facing court martial are from the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The proceedings are at Fort Bragg because the unit was attached in Afghanistan to the 82nd Airborne Division.

Four of the six other soldiers who have been punished for treatment of Chen were convicted in courts-martial. Two reached plea agreements.

brooksd@fayobserver.com
 

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