Pvt. Danny Chen, 19, who committed suicide Oct. 3; he had been hazed by fellow… (U.S. Army )
FT. BRAGG, N.C. – Who is responsible for the death of Pvt. Danny Chen?
Was it solely Chen himself, by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his isolated desert base in Afghanistan?
Or did his fellow soldiers hound Chen to his death at age 19 – kicking the Chinese American soldier, hitting him with rocks and shaming him with racial slurs?
Those questions will be probed this week at Ft. Bragg, where the first court-martial opened Tuesday in connection with Chen’s apparent suicide on Oct. 3. The Army says Chen killed himself by a single shot under his chin in a guard tower at a combat outpost in rural Kandahar Province.
Sgt. Adam Holcomb, one of eight soldiers charged in the case, sat impassively as military prosecutors accused him of calling Chen “dragon lady’’ and “eggroll,’’ and dragging Chen across sharp rocks. Holcomb, 30, is charged with negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, assault and other counts. He faces nearly 18 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
Chen’s death and the accusations of hazing and racial slurs outraged the Chinese American community in New York’s Chinatown, where Chen grew up with his immigrant parents. Asian American activists mounted protests there last fall, and Chen’s parents have accused the Army of failing to protect their son. They also question the Army’s suicide ruling.
On Monday, dozens of Chinese Americans held a news conference in Chinatown to again call attention to the case; several then boarded a bus for the 10-hour drive to Ft. Bragg. One held a sign that read: “We are all Danny Chen.’’
The case has renewed the focus on allegations of hazing and racism in the military; the Pentagon in January reiterated its long-standing policy banning any form of hazing.
On Tuesday, journalists from China and activists from New York packed into a courthouse at Ft. Bragg to hear prosecutors and defense lawyers offer sharply divergent versions of Chen’s final days.
In opening statements, government lawyers told a panel of 10 officers and noncommissioned officers that Holcomb’s alleged abuse drove Chen to suicide. They said Chen was tormented and hazed for several weeks before his death.
The defense said Chen was a woefully unfit soldier who killed himself after his parents disowned him for joining the military.
In questioning prospective panel members Tuesday, lawyers for both sides focused on hazing prohibitions, soldier nicknames, combat stress and “corrective training’’ – the permitted disciplining of soldiers for minor infractions.
Racial harassment ‘led to his death,’ prosecution says
“Pvt. Danny Chen was assaulted and subjected to racial harassment by the accused,’’ a prosecutor, Capt. Blake Doughty, told the panel. “And that led to his death.... Pvt. Chen ultimately made the decision to commit suicide.’’
A military defense lawyer, Capt. Dennis Hernon, conceded that Holcomb called Chen “dragon lady’’ but said he was administering push-ups and other “corrective training’’ to Chen after the private failed to follow orders to turn off a water heater for the unit’s rationed hot showers.
“Pvt. Chen is not dead because he was made to do sit-ups or push-ups or because he was called dragon Lady,’’ Hernon said.
“Only one person was responsible for the death of Pvt. Danny Chen,” he added, “... and that person is Pvt. Danny Chen.’’
Hernon called Chen “a failure as an infantryman’’ and said he had told fellow soldiers: “I just found out my parents disowned me because I joined the Army.’’
Chen’s mother, sobbing and wiping her eyes, bitterly denied that she and her husband had disowned their son, testifying through a translator that they maintained a close, loving relationship after he deployed to Afghanistan last summer.
A diminutive woman with short hair and glasses, Su Zhen Chen said she and her husband were disappointed when their son joined the Army rather than going to college. But, she said, they were proud of his service and denied that he had told others he had been disowned.
“He would not say that!’’ Chen said during cross-examination. “Why would I disown my only son?’’
The prosecution introduced photos of a package Su Zhen Chen sent to Danny containing his favorite snack – beef jerky – along with instant noodles, potato chips and other food marked with Chinese characters. That, she suggested, was proof of her connection to her son, whom she said was not despondent or suicidal.
“If he had contemplated suicide, he wouldn’t have told me to send him all this food,’’ she testified.
Chen was poor soldier, defense maintains