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8 charged in death of fellow soldier; GI's suicide linked to peers' ethnic taunts

NEW YORK -- Eight U.S. soldiers have been charged in the death of a fellow GI, a Chinese-American who apparently shot himself in Afghanistan after being subjected to what a community activist said were assaults and ethnic taunts from his comrades.

Pvt. Daniel Chen, 19, from New York's Chinatown neighborhood, was found in a guard tower in Kandahar province Oct. 3 with what the Army said appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In a statement, the Army said Wednesday that eight soldiers in his company were charged with crimes ranging from dereliction of duty to negligent homicide and manslaughter.

Military officials gave no details on exactly what role the soldiers are alleged to have played in Chen's death. But a community activist raised the possibility that their bullying drove him to suicide.

Even before the Army sent him to Afghanistan, supporters say, 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 repeatedly 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 Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

The details of his 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.

"Whether suicide or homicide, those responsible for mistreating Danny are responsible for his death," she said.

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

"We realize that Danny will never return, but it gives us some hope," said Yen Tao Chen, his father, speaking through a translator. Chen's parents are immigrants from China.

Community activists said the Army still has not fully explained the circumstances of Chen's death. They are meeting with Pentagon officials Jan. 4.

"We need to know the whole truth," Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said. She added: "Racial discrimination and intolerance have no place in today's military."

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, 25, of Maryland (no hometown was given); Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, 35, of Port Arthur, Texas; Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, 26, of Aberdeen, S.D.; Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, 29, of Youngstown, Ohio; Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, 26, of Brooklyn, Iowa; Spc. Thomas P. Curtis, 25, of Hendersonville, Tenn; Spc. Ryan J. Offutt, 32, of Greenville, Pa.; and Sgt. Travis F. Carden, 24, 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 two most serious charges, involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, carry prison sentences of up to 10 years and three years, respectively, under military law.

The soldiers are still in Afghanistan but have been assigned to a different base, removed from their duty positions and placed under closer supervision, the military said.

Attorneys for the defendants could not immediately be located. The sister of one of them had no comment. Other relatives could not be reached.

Eugene Fidell, an expert on military law and president of the National Institute of Military Justice, 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 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."