FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The first of eight trials for soldiers accused of the hazing and death of U.S. Army Pvt. Danny Chen commenced this week, with both sides calling Chen’s fellow soldiers and family members to testify.
Defense attorneys for Sgt. Adam Holcomb, who is charged with negligent homicide, assault and maltreatment of a subordinate, argued that Chen committed suicide last October while serving in Afghanistan because he was emotionally and psychologically unprepared for dealing with the realities of combat, with fellow soldiers testifying that Chen was despondent because his parents had disowned him for enlisting in the military.
Holcomb testified that he disciplined Chen, a 19-year-old from New York, not out of any racial animosity, but because Chen made frequent mistakes in his duties, such as failing to maintain his equipment and falling asleep on guard duty.
Prosecuting attorneys spoke of the extreme verbal and physical abuse Holcomb heaped on the private, referring to Chen by a number of derogatory nicknames and in one instance dragging Chen out of his bunk and across rocks, resulting in lacerations on his back.
Chen’s father, Yan Tao Chen, and mother, Su Zhen Chen, both denied the allegations that they disowned their only son, stating that they had accepted his decision to enlist and wholeheartedly supported him during his service.
The JACL, which is monitoring the trial along with other Asian Pacific American civil rights groups, remains committed to working with the Department of Defense and all branches of the military to adopt stronger policies against all forms of hazing, including those with racially-based elements, against American service members.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, issued the following statement about the court-martial:
“Having personally lost my nephew to military hazing, I know the pain that Pvt. Danny Chen’s family is experiencing. My nephew’s tormentors faced no real punishment – our family was denied justice and his attackers are free to live their lives. If the military is going to end its pervasive culture that accepts hazing, then Danny Chen’s perpetrators must be held accountable.”
In May, Reps. Chu, Mike Honda (D-San Jose), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and other House members introduced legislation to prevent hazing in the armed services. The Harry Lew Military Hazing Accountability and Prevention Act of 2012 would:
• Create a national database to track hazing incidents and help the military determine their causes;
• Provide a statutory definition of hazing in the Uniform Code of Military Justice to ensure that hazing is a prosecutable crime;
• Require an independent GAO (Government Accountability Office) study on each of the services’ hazing training and prevention policies along with the prevalence and consequences of hazing over the last five years;
• Require the Department of Defense to develop a comprehensive plan to address hazing throughout the armed services.
“I lost my nephew, Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, to military hazing in April of last year,” Chu said at the time. “Since that day, the military has been a perpetual disappointment – both in failing to deliver justice for Harry’s death and in their lack of attention to hazing within their ranks. Since the moment I began speaking out about this abuse in our armed services, the military has maintained that they don’t have a problem – that they are handling this issue perfectly.
“How can they claim they are doing everything perfectly if they don’t even have anti-hazing policies or training? How can they know they are doing everything perfectly if they don’t even know how many people are hazed? They can’t. And that’s exactly why we’re introducing this bill.
“We are taking action because it has become abundantly clear over the past year that the military won’t. This is about committing to protect our troops, just as our troops have committed to protect the America people. It’s about time something is done before another service member is harmed in such a preventable way.”
“Learning from the tragic cases of Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew and Army Pvt. Danny Chen, we must act now to ensure that the Department of Defense has effective hazing and harassment prevention and accountability policies,” added Honda. “A recent hearing by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel helped to identify the lack of a simple definition for hazing and harassment across the services, much less a comprehensive prevention policy.
“This bill would provide the Pentagon with the necessary tools to effectively address the problem of hazing and harassment in the military, in order to guarantee that our brave service members are able to safely and honorably defend the citizens and the Constitution of the United States.”
In March, Cummings, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and the Congressional Tri-Caucus (Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Black Caucus, and Hispanic Caucus) held a forum on military hazing and diversity in the armed services and the Coast Guard. The forum, and a hearing held later that month by the House Armed Services Committee, revealed several deficiencies in efforts to deter, address, and track hazing incidents.
The cases of Chen and Lew have been likened to those of two African American soldiers: Pvt. Hamson Daniels McPherson Jr., who committed suicide in May 2011 after facing near constant racial hazing, and Army Specialist Brushaun Anderson, who shot himself after enduring verbal harassment and being forced to wear a plastic trash bag at all times.