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Slain Chinese-American GI's family wants soldiers tried in US

Bebeto Matthews / AP

Su Zhen Chen, mother of Danny Chen, wipes away tears as she listens during a press conference on Thursday in New York.

Asian-American advocates and the family of a Chinese-American Army private believed to have committed suicide in Afghanistan after alleged hazing by his fellow soldiers called Thursday for the eight soldiers charged in his death to be tried in the United States "to see that justice can be served."

They made the demand during a meeting with Army officials on Wednesday at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn to learn more about the Oct. 3 death of Pvt. Danny Chen, 19, in the Panjwa'i district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. He was found dead at a guard tower with his rifle lying next to him in what the Army calls an "apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound."

The family on Thursday said investigators found that Chen was forced to perform excessive exercises, ordered to crawl through gravel with a heavy pack on and subjected to racial slurs.

The Army announced in late December that it had charged eight of his fellow soldiers in his death. Five of them were charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, apparently the first time such charges have been brought in this type of case, said experts on hazing and on the military legal system said.

An Article 32 hearing, which would determine whether there was enough evidence for a courts-martial, was to begin Friday in Afghanistan -- a fact the family only learned Wednesday, said Elizabeth OuYang, New York branch president of OCA, a national civil rights organization serving Asian Pacific Americans.

Defense attorneys asked for a delay, Ouyang said, and the family and community had decided to release the new details about what happened to Chen as part of an effort to move the legal proceedings to the United States. 

U.S. Army via AP

Pvt. Danny Chen.

Frank Gee, a family friend and translator for the Chens, had noted on Wednesday that there was some new information in the briefing but it was "sensitive material" and there were concerns about jeopardizing the case. On Thursday, however, he said that the advocates and family had shared most everything they learned at the Army meeting.

“We feel … very strongly that these trials must happen in the United States not in Afghanistan. This case has wide concern," said
OuYang, who attended the meeting with the Army. "We must have access to these proceedings. We must be able to see that justice can be served. What happened to Danny could happen to any one of us because of the color of our skin and the shape of our eyes."

"More importantly, the family ... has been through absolute hell the last two months. To give them some measure of closure, they must have the right to be able to face those who are found guilty to ask them why did they do this to their son.”

Chen's father, Yan Tao Chen, a 49-year-old cook, said through a translator that he wanted the trials to be held in the United States, noting that he and his wife -- Su Zhen Chen, also 49 -- would worry about how many they could realistically attend if the proceedings were held in Afghanistan.

Also, he added, "the name, Afghanistan, reminds the family of the tragedy, so again, we want to avoid that as much as we possibly can."

OuYang said the Army officials at Fort Hamilton told them they did not have the authority to move the proceedings and would take it to their superiors.

Wednesday's meeting with the Army revealed the extent of the alleged abuse, Ouyang said.

According to investigators from the Regional Command-South, OuYang said, almost immediately after he arrived in mid-August, Chen, the only Chinese-American in his platoon, was required to do exercises that within a few days crossed over to alleged abuse. Some of it was inflicted by one soldier and some by a group of them.

OuYang said investigators found that Chen was:

-- Subjected to an excessive number of exercises: push-ups, situps, flusher kicks, runs and sprints carrying sand bags.

-- Made to crawl with all his equipment across gravel.

-- Placed in a simulated sitting position while soldiers used their knees to strike his leg.

-- Had rocks thrown at him to simulate incoming artillery rounds.

-- Subjected to racial slurs, such as gook, dragon lady and chink.

-- Made to perform push-ups with mouthfuls of water that he wasn’t able to spit out or swallow.

-- Required to perform excessive work details and guard duty.

-- Within two to three weeks of his death, soldiers were asked to put up a new tent. He was ordered to wear a green hard hat and give directions to other soldiers in Chinese on how to set up the tent, OuYang said.

On Sept. 27, about a week before his death, Chen was assaulted by a sergeant, OuYang said, citing investigators. The sergeant allegedly dragged him out of his bed over 50 meters of gravel to the shower trailer and told him, "You broke the hot water pump." Chen had bruises and cuts on his back, OuYang said, quoting investigators.

"Investigators found evidence that the platoon sergeant and the platoon leader -- the top two leaders of this platoon -- were aware of the Sept. 27 attack and chose not to report it," OuYang said.

"Had they reported it, Danny may still be alive today," she later added. She said that those two were among the eight charged (one also was charged with making a false official statement).

On the day of his death, Chen reported to the guard tower for duty but was sent back to his trailer to get his helmet and more water.

"Then he was made to crawl with all his equipment approximately 100 meters over gravel to begin his guard shift while some of the suspects threw rocks at him," OuYang said. "At 11:13 a.m. that morning, a shot was heard in the guard tower."

Investigators learned that the suspects believed Chen was not "trained enough and subjected him to doing these exercises. But ... it quickly crossed over to abuse," OuYang said, noting that Chen had successfully completed basic and advanced training before his deployment.

When asked why Chen would be sent to Afghanistan if he was unfit, OuYang said one of the Army officials told the family "that he was fit, but he may not have been as fit as others."

Chen's parents, immigrants from southern China, were briefed on the investigation status of court-martial proceedings by representatives from the Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's Office and Regional Command-South, among others.

The eight soldiers have been assigned to a different forward operating base in Afghanistan, removed from active duty and placed under increased supervision of senior non-commissioned officers, Sgt. 1st Class Alan G. Davis, an Army spokesman, said in an email.

There were no other known suicides at Combat Outpost Palace, where Chen was stationed, before his death, and the regional command has no other cases of charges relating to suicides. The outpost came under 16 attacks, but no soldiers died as a result, Davis said.

Army spokesmen in Afghanistan did not imediately respond to an email sent late Thursday regarding the Article 32 hearings and allegations about the platoon leaders. But a Pentagon-based Army spokesman, George Wright, noted in an e-mail that "the Army maintains world-wide jurisdiction over soldiers and may convene courts-martial from wherever the Army operates, which may include deployed environments."

Brendan McDermid / Reuters file

Soldiers carry the casket of U.S. Army Private Danny Chen from a funeral home for his funeral procession in New York on Oct. 13.

The CID said Tuesday that it investigated all deaths as if they were homicides and the inquiry into Chen's death was not complete. CID agents were deployed on the investigation within minutes of his death, said Chris Grey, chief of public affairs at USA Criminal Investigation Division.

“I know they (the Army spokesmen in Afghanistan) used the words 'apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound,' but our case is still ongoing," Grey said. "Seeing the nature of what’s going on with the soldiers being charged, etc., it did cause a little bit of confusion, but I can guarantee that our investigation is ongoing."

In a book from a memorial service held for Chen on Oct. 6 in Afghanistan, one soldier described him like any member new to the unit -- timid and shy, while another recalled him as cheerful, laughing at all jokes, and reading his "ranger hand book and learning the different movement formations." Yet another recalled that he was a needed replacement.

"From what I heard about him Danny never complained and always kept a smile on his face," wrote Cpt. Allred in a tribute to Chen. "He was a determined member of the team who sought to find his place among the battle hardened platoon living in a relatively austere environment."

Chen last spoke to his parents Sept. 27, asking his mom for a care package. Su Zhen asked him how the other soldiers were treating him, and he responded it was nothing that she should be concerned about, "the normal stuff." She said he hadn't mentioned any problems and had never spoken of any trouble with his fellow GIs.

But a cousin, Banny Chen, 18, said that Chen had complained in a Feb. 27 letter sent while he was at basic training in Georgia that he had been picked on because of his ethnicity.

"It's going to be difficult to pass the time, knowing that we don't have a son," Su Zhen said last week. "It's going to be heartache" every time "a thought about Danny comes up."