Army Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst took the stand during his court-martial Wednesday and denied hazing Pvt. Danny Chen, who killed himself in Afghanistan last fall.
Hurst said he issued what he thought were appropriate punishments when Chen needed correction. He admitted to calling Chen "Dragon Lady," but said Chen told him it didn't bother him.
"It was just a nickname, sir," Hurst said in response to questioning by his lawyer. He said he meant nothing personal toward Chen, who is Chinese-American and could have taken offense to the term.
Hurst, who grew up in Iowa, is one of eight soldiers based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, to face charges related to Chen's October 2011 suicide. Prosecutors allege Chen, 19, was driven to kill himself by bullying and racial taunts from his superiors and fellow soldiers.
Hurst's lawyers say there isn't enough evidence to show Hurst had any knowledge or involvement in the bullying. They contend Chen may have killed himself because some members of his family, including his father, were angry and disappointed that he joined the Army.
Hurst is accused of violating a lawful regulation, dereliction of his duties and maltreatment of a person subject to his orders. The court-martial is at Fort Bragg.
The Army previously leveled several other charges against Hurst, including negligent homicide. A military judge dismissed all charges against Hurst over the summer following a motion by his lawyers, Hurst's lead lawyer Haytham Faraj said, but allowed the Army to reinstate them if it desired. Prosecutors followed up with the lesser accusations, he said. The Observer previously reported that the prosecutors had dismissed some of the charges.
Hurst and Chen's platoon operated a remote combat outpost in Taliban territory. Witnesses including Hurst said combat was frequent. Several soldiers in the platoon were injured by bombs and firefights while out on patrol that summer.
Hurst suffered brain damage from a concussion in an explosion. He said his supervisors found him becoming careless, even reckless, when he returned to duty in August 2011.
Chen arrived at the outpost around the same time.
Based on his experience in the military, including prior deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurst said soldiers acquire nicknames when they become accepted by the unit. Other soldiers have testified that soldiers in dangerous areas frequently use nicknames for each other to relieve stress.
After people began calling Chen "Dragon Lady," Hurst said he asked Chen about it. Chen said, "Nicknames don't bother me," Hurst testified.
Another soldier dragged Chen across rocks to punish him for accidentally breaking the platoon's only hot water heater, which had been jury-rigged to the outpost's showers.
Hurst said he saw Chen's reddened, scabbed injuries and asked him about it. Chen told him it was nothing, and not to worry about it, Hurst said. He testified that he didn't learn of the dragging incident until after Chen's death.
An investigator previously testified that Hurst admitted last year to knowing about the dragging incident and couldn't explain why he didn't report the abuse.
If Chen was being abused, he would have done something about it, Hurst said.
Hurst denied previous testimony from other soldiers who said they heard him use racial slurs against Chen and had punished him by making him do pushups with a sandbag on his back and walk around with sandbags tied to his wrists.
He said he made Chen do lunges while holding a sandbag as part of a punishment for graffiti that disparaged two non-commissioned officers. Hurst said Chen admitted to making the graffiti; others have testified that Chen never admitted it and that the graffiti was made before Chen was stationed at the outpost.
Also on Wednesday, Pfc. Bryan Johnson, a close friend of Chen's, testified for the prosecution that Chen was happy before the deployment. He said he saw Chen three times in Afghanistan and in those meetings Chen appeared increasingly unhappy.
"He said his team leader was extremely brutal and mean to him," Johnson said. Chen was afraid of him, he said, but Chen wouldn't name him or other supervisors who he said were treating him unfairly. According to testimony this week, the team leaders in Chen's squad frequently changed based on the platoon's needs and circumstances, so it's not certain he was referring to Hurst.
Chen was also under stress because his father was upset that he had joined the Army, Johnson said.
Early Wednesday, the judge admonished Hurst's eight jurors. who rank from master sergeant through colonel, for appearing to have improperly begun deliberating the facts.
Jurors are not allowed to deliberate or discuss the case among themselves until both sides have finished presenting evidence.
Chen was serving at Combat Outpost Palace in Kandahar Province with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. The case is being prosecuted at Fort Bragg because the unit was under the command of Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne Division while it was in Afghanistan.