FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - Military prosecutors on Tuesday said a U.S. Army sergeant’s physical abuse and racial harassment led a young Chinese-American soldier to commit suicide weeks after he was deployed to Afghanistan.
But a defense attorney argued that Private Danny Chen instead took his life out of despair over family troubles and his failure as an infantryman.
The dueling theories played out in a military courtroom in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, far from the base in Alaska where 19-year-old Chen was said to eagerly await his first deployment and the small outpost in southern Afghanistan where he killed himself in October.
Sergeant Adam Holcomb, 30, is the first of eight of Chen’s superiors to stand trial in connection with his alleged hazing and subsequent death.
Holcomb, who has pleaded not guilty, faces nearly 18 years of confinement and a dishonorable discharge if convicted of charges that include negligent homicide.
The case has galvanized the Asian-American community in Chen’s hometown of New York City and elsewhere, with supporters calling for the military to do more to guard against prejudice. Chen, born to immigrant parents, was the only Chinese-American in his unit.
Despite Asian-Americans comprising just 4 percent of the active duty U.S. military, many of the four officers and six enlisted soldiers chosen on Tuesday to sit as jurors said they had served with people of that ethnicity.
They described a military culture where nicknames are common and often endearing, and soldiers are exposed to suicide awareness training.
But during the opening statement for the prosecution, Captain Blake Doughty outlined a scenario where a leader failed to uphold one of the Army’s basic values: respect.
Doughty accused Holcomb of using racially disparaging terms to refer to Chen and another soldier. Holcomb called Chen “dragon lady,” “gook,” “egg roll” and “chink,” and called a young African-American soldier “black boy” and “niglet,” the prosecutor said.
Doughty said Holcomb admitted to grabbing Chen out of bed by the arm and dragging him across gravel after the lower-ranked soldier left a water pump on in a shower against orders.
“This conduct over time drove Private Danny Chen to take his own life,” Doughty said.
Chen killed himself in a guard tower on October 3, 2011. According to Doughty, Chen told at least two friends that suicide was the only way he could think of to stop the abuse.
But Captain Dennis Hernon, one of Holcomb’s defense attorneys, said Chen alone was responsible for his premature death.
He said Chen, an only child, told fellow soldiers before they deployed that he had been disowned by his parents for joining the Army in January 2011.
Hernon said Chen’s troubles continued in Afghanistan, where he “had a lot of deficiencies as a soldier.” The lawyer said Chen at times fell asleep on guard duty and showed up for tasks without the proper equipment, putting himself and others at risk.
Hernon disputed that Holcomb subjected Chen to ongoing physical mistreatment or racial slurs.
“Sergeant Holcomb referred to him affectionately as ‘dragon lady,'” Hernon said. “That was the only name he ever called him.”
Chen never said the nickname bothered him, according to Hernon.
Holcomb, who joined the Army in August 2007, also is charged with reckless endangerment, communicating a threat, assault, maltreatment of a subordinate, dereliction of duty and violating a lawful general regulation.
The proceedings on Tuesday ended with the emotional testimony of Su Zhen Chen, Danny Chen’s mother. Speaking through an interpreter, she admitted that she tried to dissuade her son from joining the Army.
But the grieving woman, who cried through much of her time on the stand, grew even more distraught when asked whether she ever told her son she was disowning him for enlisting.
“I never said that,” she said, later adding, “He’s my only son. Why would I disown my only son?”
Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Stacey Joyce