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8 soldiers charged in alleged hazing death of GI; family seeks truth

Eight members of the US military are being charged in connection with the death of Private Danny Chen. Investigators reportedly uncovered evidence that Chen was the target of ethnic slurs and hazing before he was shot in Afghanistan. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

Updated at 2:00 p.m. ET

Eight U.S. soldiers have been charged in the death of 19-year-old Private Danny Chen, who was found shot to death in a guard tower in southern Afghanistan.

It was first thought to have been a suicide, but the military's investigation found that the Asian-American had been the target of ethnic slurs and physical attacks by his fellow soldiers.


Chen was found dead Oct. 3 with a gunshot wound below the chin; it's not clear from the charges whether the eight soldiers are accused of killing him or whether officials are alleging that their mistreatment of Chen led him to take his own life.

The military said the soldiers from Chen's company face charges that include dereliction of duty, assault, negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter.

Read more coverage on NBCNewYork.com

Chen's parents welcomed the charges Wednesday during an emotional news conference at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in New York's Chinatown, where their only child grew up and went to school.

"Over two months of agonizing over the loss, it is of some comfort and relief to learn that the Army is taking this seriously," Chen's mother, Su Zhen, 49, said through tears in Chinese as a family friend translated. "(We) hope that the truth will come out and hopefully that what happened will not happen again."

Zhen, who came to the United States in 1987 from Taishan in southern China, said she had not wanted her only child -- a good student who had a lot of friends -- to join the Army. She said she "could not figure out why they (the soldiers) would do this to him."

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A portrait of Army Pvt. Danny Chen is placed on a car in his funeral procession in Chinatown on Oct. 13 in New York City.

Chen's father, Yantao Chen, 49, a cook who moved to America from the same province in 1989, said through the family friend that while well wishing "gives them comfort … he realizes that Danny will never return, but it gives him hope."

The translating friend was Frank Gee, 72, an Army veteran, who said the family heard about the charges Tuesday from a lieutenant colonel in Afghanistan. He said they were expecting them, though Zhen cried when she heard the news.

"It's rather tough. ... The only child, especially (in a) Chinese family, a boy," Gee said. "They are learning to cope with it."

Chen was like "sunshine," said his aunt, Lucy Chen. "Danny (was) a very good boy ... We miss him."

Elizabeth OuYang, New York branch president of OCA, a national civil rights organization serving Asian Pacific Americans, said Chen was not depressed but had suffered emotional and physical abuse in the military: He was dragged from his bed and made to crawl while rocks were thrown at his back and was forced to hold liquid in his mouth while doing chin-ups during his two months in Afghanistan. He was deployed there in August and had been in the military just seven months.

"Whether suicide or homicide, those responsible for mistreating Danny caused his death, and they must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," OuYang said at the news conference, noting that forensic expert Henry Lee would conduct an independent autopsy.

Army says Danny Chen was bullied before his death. WNBC's Katy Tur reports.

She said she and community leaders had a meeting last week at the Pentagon to put forward reforms to prevent such abuse and that they have another one on Jan. 4, where the commanding officer's report would be shared with them. She said they were told that a separate report by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command would be finished by the end of February.

"Clearly the Army’s diversity training is not effective," she said. "It's not worth it (to serve) if we can't be protected from people who are supposed to be on our side."

Though the news of the charges was "amazing," she said it was only the beginning and that they did not want the soldiers to be able to plead to lesser charges, noting they wanted "a loud signal sent that our lives are not cheap."

Some 3,000 Asian Americans were recruited to serve in the U.S. military in 2009, OuYang wrote in October.

Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, D-N.Y., called the day "bittersweet" and demanded a "clear accounting of the facts." She said minorities make up 35 percent of active duty forces.

"We need to know the whole truth," Velazquez said. "If there is a message to everyone in this country, especially to the armed forces, it's that racial intolerance and discrimination have no place in our military and we need to have that message clearly conveyed today."

Wellington Chen, executive director of Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, cited a Chinese expression in saying the community could handle the truth and didn't want it to come out in bits and pieces: "If you have a fire, you cannot cover it with paper. The truth will come out."

Military's charges
According to an official statement from the military, 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, Spc. Thomas P. Curtis, Spc. Ryan J. Offutt and Sgt. Travis F. Carden, all of C Co., 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division were charged Wednesday in connection withthe death of Chen, an infantryman assigned to C Co. at Combat Outpost Palace.

According to the statement:

  • Schwartz is charged with eight specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, dereliction of duty.
  • Dugas is charged with one specification of Article 92, UCMJ, violation of a lawful general regulation, four specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, dereliction of duty, and one specification of Article 107, UCMJ, making a false official statement.
  • VanBockel is charged with two specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, violation of a lawful general regulation, three specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, dereliction of duty, four specifications of Article 93, UCMJ, maltreatment, one specification of Article 119, UCMJ, involuntary manslaughter, one specification of Article 128, UCMJ, assault consummated by battery, one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, negligent homicide, and one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, reckless endangerment.
  • Holcomb is charged with four specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, violation of a lawful general regulation, two specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, dereliction of duty, two specifications of Article 93,UCMJ, maltreatment, one specification of Article 108, UCMJ, destruction of military property, one specification of Article 119, UCMJ, involuntary manslaughter, two specifications of Article 128, UCMJ, assault consummated by battery, one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, negligent homicide, one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, reckless endangerment, and one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, communicating a threat.
  • Hurst is charged with two specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, violation of a lawful general regulation, two specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, dereliction of duty, two specifications of Article 93, UCMJ, maltreatment, one specification of Article 119, UCMJ, involuntary manslaughter, one specification of Article 128, UCMJ, assault consummated by battery, one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, negligent homicide, and one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, reckless endangerment.
  • Curtis is charged with two specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, violation of a lawful general regulation, one specification of Article 92, UCMJ, dereliction of duty, six specifications of Article 93, UCMJ, maltreatment, one specification of Article 119, involuntary manslaughter, four specifications of Article 128, UCMJ, assault consummated by battery, one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, negligent homicide, and one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, reckless endangerment.
  • Offutt is charged with two specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, violation of a lawful general regulation, one specification of Art 92, UCMJ, dereliction of duty, four specifications of Article 93, UCMJ, maltreatment, one specification of Article 119, UCMJ, involuntary manslaughter, three specifications of Article 128, UCMJ, assault consummated by battery, one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, negligent homicide, and one specification of Article 134, UCMJ, reckless endangerment.
  • Carden is charged with two specifications of Article 92, UCMJ, violation of a lawful general regulation, two specifications of Article 93, UCMJ, maltreatment, and one specification of Article 128, UCMJ, assault. 

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.

An Army criminal investigation into the circumstances of Chen's death remains open, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command told Reuters.

"Aside from investigating the actual cause and manner of Private Chen's death, we are also investigating the circumstances leading up to his death," U.S.-based spokesman Chris Grey said in an email.

Pattern of abuse
Last week, hundreds of supporters held a vigil and demanded answers in Chen's death. A group of community leaders at the vigil said it had a meeting at the Pentagon recently about the treatment of Asian soldiers in the military, and wanted the commanding officers to be punished.

At the vigil last Thursday, the soldier's family ramped up pressure on investigators, reading aloud letters Chen had sent home, reflecting the state of isolation he was in from being harassed by his comrades and superiors.

"'Feb. 27, 2011: Since I am the only Chinese person here, everyone knows me by Chen,'" read his cousin Banny Chen. "'They ask if I'm from China a few times a day... They also call out my name Chen in a goat-like voice sometimes for no reason.'"

"'People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time. I'm running out of jokes to come back at them.'"

Chen's death is one of several recent cases of alleged hazing in the military, according to OCA.

One of those was Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, who was hazed by fellow Marines, according to a U.S. military report on his April 3 death. The military accused three Marines of beating Lew hours before he killed himself and charged them with hazing. They face court martial, The San Jose Mercury News reported.

"We clearly see this as a pattern, it doesn't take a genius to figure it out," Wellington Chen said. "To turn a human being into a killing machine, you need to condition them and sometimes once you unleash it, you may not be able to control it, that's the unfortunate part."

Lawyer Mathew B. Tully, an expert in military law and a former Army soldier, wrote in an article earlier this year that the "military’s zero-tolerance position on hazing has not completely eradicated the practice" of hazing.

"While some instances of hazing are as easy to identify as the marks they leave on victims, verbal or psychological offenses are not as black and white," he wrote. "For example, in 2007 three Marines based in Yorktown, Va., were charged with hazing subordinates after making them stand in formation for five hours and perform cleaning duties to the point of exhaustion, without food or sleep."

NBC New York and NBC News contributed to this report.