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Eight U.S. soldiers charged in death of comrade

NEW YORK — Even before the Army sent him to Afghanistan, supporters say, Pvt. Daniel Chen was fighting a personal war.

Fellow soldiers at a base in Georgia teased him about his Chinese name, crying out "Chen!" in an exaggerated Asian accent. They called him "Jackie Chen," a reference to the Hollywood action star Jackie Chan. People would ask him if he was Chinese, even though he was a native New Yorker.

At one point Chen wrote in his diary that he was running out of jokes to respond with.

Then he was sent overseas, and the hazing began: Soldiers dragged him across a floor, pelted him with stones and forced him to hold liquid in his mouth while hanging upside down, according to diary entries and other accounts cited by a community activist.

On Oct. 3, Chen, 19, was found dead in a guardhouse in Afghanistan with what the Army said was apparently a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

On Wednesday, the Army announced charges against eight soldiers in his death, saying Chen was a victim of illegal hazing. Five of those accused were charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. The alleged offenses also included maltreatment, assault and threats.

The military released few details of Chen's death. But family members and community activists said they suspect the bullying may have driven him to suicide.

"Whether suicide or homicide, those responsible for mistreating Danny are responsible for his death," said Elizabeth OuYang, a community activist who is representing his parents, Chinese immigrants who live near New York City's Chinatown neighborhood.

Attorneys for the defendants could not immediately be located. A sister of Staff Sgt. Andrew Van Bockel, Bretta Van Bockel, had no comment. Relatives of the other defendants could not be reached.

Eugene Fidell, an expert on military law and president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said he could not recall a similar criminal case. But he couldn't say for certain whether this represents a first.

Fidell said bullying has been a recurring problem for the military.

"If there was brutality within the unit, that's a betrayal of the bond of brotherhood," he said. "That is, in theory, the underpinning of what holds a military command together."

He added: "Can I imagine somebody being bullied in the military to the point of taking his or her own life? Yes. These people are young people. You're at an age of vulnerability as well as strength."

Activists said Chen's case has highlighted the military's poor treatment of Asian-Americans, who remain a tiny percentage of new recruits even as the percentage of blacks, Hispanics, women and other groups has grown.

Pentagon officials would not comment Wednesday on the specifics of the case. But a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said hazing is not tolerated.

"That's what this uniform requires. And when we don't, there's a justice system in place to deal with it," Kirby said. "That's what we're seeing here in the case of Private Chen."

The details of Chen's alleged hazing came from Facebook and email messages, discussions with cousins and a few pages of Chen's journal released by the Army, OuYang said at a Chinatown news conference.

Chen's relatives said they were encouraged by the charges.

"We realize that Danny will never return, but it gives us some hope," Yen Tao Chen, his father, said through a translator.

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.

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 of Maryland (no hometown was given); Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas of Port Arthur, Texas; Van Bockel of Aberdeen, S.D.; Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb of Youngstown, Ohio; Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst of Brooklyn, Iowa; Spc. Thomas P. Curtis of Hendersonville, Tenn; Spc. Ryan J. Offutt of Greenville, Pa.; and Sgt. Travis F. Carden 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.

The soldiers are still in Afghanistan but have been relieved of their duties and confined to a different base, the military said. The next step is a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for a court martial. The proceedings are expected to be held in Afghanistan.

Eight U.S. soldiers charged in death of comrade 12/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 10:06pm]

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