KABUL — The Army, which has struggled in recent years to combat a mounting suicide toll, took an unusual step when it announced Wednesday that it had charged eight U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan in connection with the apparent suicide of one of their lower-ranking comrades.
The charges in the death of Pvt. Danny Chen, a 19-year-old infantryman from Manhattan, came after a vigorous, weeks-long campaign by advocacy groups and family members hoping to pressure the Pentagon to investigate allegations that Chen had been the subject of hazing within the ranks and repeatedly taunted with racial slurs.
On Oct. 3, Chen was found dead in a guard tower at a small combat outpost in Kandahar province. He was killed by an “apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound,” according to a statement by the NATO command in southern Afghanistan.
While the exact circumstances of his death are still unclear, advocates speaking for the family said on Wednesday that regardless of who fired the bullet that killed him, the soldiers who allegedly mistreated him are responsible.
“Whether suicide or not, the actions of these people led to his death and they must be prosecuted for killing him,” Liz OuYang, a Chinese-American activist who pushed for an investigation into Chen’s death. “There can be no plea bargaining — they must be tried in the death of Danny Chen.”
After more than two months of agonizing over the family’s loss, “it’s of some comfort and relief to learn that the Army is taking this seriously,” said Chen’s mother, Su Zhen Chen, in a Manhattan news conference organized by OuYang. Speaking through an interpreter, she said she hopes that “the truth will come out and that what happened will not be repeated.”
The young soldier’s father, Yen Tao Chen, also said that the military’s action “gives us some hope.”
Military officials declined Wednesday to release documents detailing the charges against the soldiers and did not provide a detailed account of the events that led to Chen’s death. But a spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division said that the investigation into how Chen died includes “the circumstances leading up to his death.”
The Army said that 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, Spec. Thomas P. Curtis, Spec. Ryan J. Offutt and Sgt. Travis F. Carden had all been charged with counts ranging from dereliction of duty to making a false statement to assault, negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.
Reached Wednesday, some family members of the accused said they were shocked to hear of the charges.
Sheila Dugas, the mother of Blaine Dugas, said it was “completely out of character” for him. “He was always just taking care of his boys, his troops.”
Bretta Von Bockel, hearing the news about the accusations against her brother for the first time, said she could not believe it. “We worry about him every day,” she said.
Rarely have other service members been charged in connection with a suicide. If Chen did take his own life, he would be the second Asian American known to have done so this year after apparently being mistreated by comrades. Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, 21, shot himself on April 3 after being hazed the night before by fellow Marines, the Marine Corps Times reported.
Through the end of November, the Army reported 154 potential suicides of active-duty service members for this year, slightly ahead of last year’s pace in which 159 active-duty soldiers took their own lives. Suicides in the Army reserves and National Guard have fallen significantly this year.
OuYang, the president of the New York chapter of OCA, an Asian-American advocacy group, said that the case “could have easily been swept under the rug” had it not pushed the Pentagon to act. Three weeks after Chen was found dead, she sent a letter to the Secretary of the Army asking for a meeting to discuss the case and concerns that Asian-American soldiers face discrimination from comrades.
“The community, elected officials and the media demanded the truth,” she said. “That all played an important role in obtaining justice in this case.”
Chen and the accused soldiers were assigned to C Company of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Sgt. 1st Class Alan G. Davis, a military spokesman, said the accused soldiers have been transferred from their post in Kandahar province to a different military base and relieved of their official duties. He said the soldiers are under “increased supervision” at the new base but are not being detained. Davis said the soldiers will probably be prosecuted in Afghanistan.
Van Bockel, Halcomb, Hurst, Curtis and Offutt were charged with involuntary manslaughter, assault consummated by battery, negligent homicide and reckless endangerment, the military statement said.
Schwartz, the only officer among the defendants, was charged with dereliction of duty. Dugas was charged with dereliction of duty and making a false statement. Carden was charged with assault and maltreatment.
Chen’s death, and the reports that he had been mistreated, incensed Asian American activists in New York, who called on the military to carry out a swift investigation. Hundreds attended a vigil in Manhattan last week to demand answers.
OuYang said Chen, who was born in the United States, had been subjected to ethnic slurs and physical abuse by superiors shortly before he died. Referring to an account military officials provided to the family, she said the physical abuse left marks on his back. Fellow soldiers once forced Chen out of bed and dragged him across the floor to punish him for failing to turn off a water heater, OuYang said. The mistreatment was reported by the New York Times on Oct. 30.
Chen, the son of immigrants who live in New York City’s Chinatown
and speak no English, indicated to his parents that he was being bullied, but also told them that such treatment was “to be expected,” the Times story said.
OuYang said Chen’s diaries and e-mails show a pattern of harassment that began at Fort Benning, Ga., during basic training earlier this year. “He was taunted several days,” she said. “Some of it was ignorance, some of it was outright taunting.”
Reached late Wednesday afternoon by phone, Su Zhen Chen, Chen’s mother said: “We are always missing our son. That’s what’s on our minds.”