By Chris Hawley
The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Eight U.S. soldiers have been charged in the death of a fellow GI, a Chinese American who apparently shot himself in Afghanistan after being subjected to what a community activist said were assaults and ethnic taunts from his comrades.
The soldiers face charges ranging from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of 19-year-old Army Pvt. Daniel Chen of New York City. Chen’s relatives say he endured weeks of racial teasing and name calling while in training, then was subjected to hazing after he was deployed to Afghanistan.
On Oct. 3, Chen was found dead in a guardhouse in Afghanistan with what the Army said was apparently a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Pentagon officials say they have transferred eight soldiers to another base amid allegations that they mistreated one of their comrades shortly before he committed suicide in a guardhouse in Afghanistan.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said the military was taking a zero-tolerance attitude toward soldiers who mistreat their comrades.
“That’s what this uniform requires. And when we don’t, there’s a justice system in place to deal with it,” Kirby said. “Hazing is not tolerated in the military. If it’s found and it’s proven, it’s dealt with.”
The two most serious charges, involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, carry prison sentences of up to 10 years and three years, respectively, under military law.
Military officials gave no details on exactly what role the soldiers are alleged to have played in Chen’s death. But a community activist raised the possibility that their bullying drove him to suicide.
Chen’s fellow soldiers dragged him across the floor, threw stones at the back of his head, forced him to hold liquid in his mouth while upside down as part of an apparent hazing, and called him “Jackie Chen” in a mocking accent, in a reference to the action star Jackie Chan, according to Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans.
At one point, Chen wrote in his diary that he was running out of jokes to respond with.
The details of his alleged hazing came from Facebook and e-mail messages, discussions with cousins, and a few pages of Chen’s journal released by the Army, OuYang said at a Chinatown news conference.
“Whether suicide or homicide, those responsible for mistreating Danny are responsible for his death,” she said.
Chen’s relatives said they were encouraged by the charges.
“We realize that Danny will never return, but it gives us some hope,” said Yen Tao Chen, his father, speaking through a translator. Chen’s parents are immigrants from China.
In 2010, three Army sergeants were punished after Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm of Willard, Ohio, killed himself 10 days after arriving in Iraq with a platoon based in Fort Bliss, Texas. Wilhelm’s family said he was being bullied and forced to run for miles with rocks in his pockets.
Two sergeants were imprisoned for six months and three months, respectively, on charges of cruelty and maltreatment. The third was convicted of obstructing justice and given a one-grade reduction in pay.
Activists said Chen’s case has raised questions about the military’s treatment of its small Asian American minority.
“We love our country and we want to serve our country, but it’s not worth it if we can’t be protected from people who are supposed to be on our side,” OuYang said.
In 2008, people of Asian descent made up only 1.8 percent of new military recruits, even though they represent 4.15 percent of the total population of American 18- to 24-year-olds, a Pentagon report said. The percentages of whites, Blacks, and Latinos reflected the wider population more closely.
Community activists said the Army still has not fully explained the circumstances of Chen’s death.
They are meeting with Pentagon officials on Jan. 4.
“We need to know the whole truth,” Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) said. She added, “Racial discrimination and intolerance have no place in today’s military.”
The Army announced earlier it is investigating Chen’s death.
Chen was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
The Army identified the soldiers charged as 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, 25, of Maryland (no hometown was given); Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, 35, of Port Arthur, Texas; Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, 26, of Aberdeen, S.D.; Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, 29, of Youngstown, Ohio; Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, 26, of Brooklyn, Iowa; Spc. Thomas P. Curtis, 25, of Hendersonville, Tenn.; Spc. Ryan J. Offutt, 32, of Greenville, Pa.; and Sgt. Travis F. Carden, 24, of Fowler, Ind.
VanBockel, Holcomb, Hurst, Curtis, and Offutt were charged with the most serious offenses, including involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, and assault and battery.
Schwartz, the only officer among the accused, was charged with dereliction of duty.
Offutt’s mother, Carol Tate of Sharon, Pa., told The (Sharon) Herald that she has known about the charges for a while and has talked to her son.
“I think there’s a lot of things that really haven’t been brought up,” she said, but declined further comment. (end)