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Staff sergeant receives reprimand, reduction in rank in Danny Chen suicide case

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Staff Sgt. Andrew J. VanBockel will be demoted, reprimanded and forced to perform hard labor for his role in the hazing of Pvt. Danny Chen.

VanBockel, 27, of Aberdeen, S.D., was sentenced Wednesday after a jury deliberated for about an hour and a half before deciding he should be rebuked, lose two ranks and perform 60 days of hard labor.

The same jury convicted him Tuesday of hazing, dereliction of duty and maltreatment of a subordinate.

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Chen, 19, of New York, committed suicide in a guard tower of a small outpost in southern Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2011, following weeks of torment at the hands of his fellow soldiers, according to military officials.

Eight soldiers from Chen's Fort Wainwright, Alaska-based platoon were charged in the death and VanBockel was the seventh to stand trial.

In Afghanistan, VanBockel was Chen's squad leader at Combat Outpost Palace. Jurors found that he did not do enough to prevent Chen's mistreatment and participated by using racial nicknames, such as "Dragon Lady."

Prosecutors said VanBockel allowed and encouraged the mistreatment of Chen, who came to the small outpost shortly after basic training and ill-prepared for combat.

But VanBockel's lawyers said the staff sergeant was unaware of the more egregious acts against Chen and tried on numerous occasions to help the young soldier adjust to the deployment.

Following the sentence, the military judge, Col. Tara Osborn, said VanBockel would only have to complete 15 days of hard labor because of credit for pre-trial confinement.

The demotion to specialist will cost VanBockel more than $500 a month in pay, according to officials. He had been making more than $2,800 a month.

Jurors could have sentenced VanBockel to four years, nine months in prison, a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and demotion to the Army's lowest rank.

Prosecutors advocated for that punishment, and said the least amount of time jurors should consider would be two years in prison.

VanBockel's lawyers, meanwhile, argued that the convictions punished their client enough.

"That's not a small burden," VanBockel's civilian lawyer, Colby C. Vokey, said of the convictions. "It's a big, big burden."

After the court-martial, VanBockel hugged his family as his lawyers shook hands with his supporters.

On Tuesday, VanBockel's mother, Virginia Pahl, said her son was kind, compassionate and had long sacrificed for his country.

"My son did his duty," she said. "He put his life on the line every single day."

Outside the courthouse, supporters for the Chen family, including members of the Organization of Chinese Americans' New York chapter, said the sentence was too light and called the result a disgrace.

"He purposely engaged in conduct that created an atmosphere of unrelenting and escalating hazing against Pvt. Danny Chen that cost him his life," said Liz OuYang.

OuYang and other activists have expressed disbelief at the severity of the sentences related to the maltreatment of Chen.

So far, no soldier has been sentenced to more than six months in prison and most have avoided confinement altogether.

Sgt. Adam Holcomb was convicted of maltreatment and sentenced to 30 days in prison, the loss of one rank and the forfeiture of more than $1,100 after a seven-day trial.

Spc. Ryan Offutt pleaded guilty to hazing and mistreating Chen and was sentenced to six months in prison, a demotion to private and a bad conduct discharge following a plea agreement.

Staff Sgt. Blaine Dugas, Chen's platoon sergeant, was demoted one rank and sentenced to three months in prison following convictions for using alcohol in a combat zone and dereliction of duty.

He will not have to serve any time in prison because of credit for 90 days in prison based on unlawful pretrial punishment.

Sgt. Travis Carden was demoted one rank and will forfeit two-thirds of his pay for a month following convictions of hazing and maltreating Chen by calling him racially disparaging names and ordering him to perform pushups with his mouth full of water.

Spc. Thomas Porter Curtis IV was demoted to private and sentenced to three months in prison after pleading guilty to hazing and maltreatment.

And Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst was demoted to specialist, reprimanded and sentenced to 45 days of hard labor for dereliction of duty.

The final soldier, 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, is scheduled to stand trial in late January.

All eight of the soldiers were part of 3rd Platoon, C Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

They were tried on Fort Bragg because the unit, typically based at Fort Wainwright fell under the command of the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan.

brooksd@fayobserver.com
 

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