FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - The first of eight court-martial trials was set to begin Tuesday for U.S. soldiers accused of hazing a Chinese-American recruit over his ethnicity until he killed himself in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Adam Holcomb of Youngstown, Ohio, will be the first of eight men to go before a military court in Fort Bragg. Young faces a slew of charges, the most serious of which is negligent homicide, and could get nearly 18 years in prison if convicted on all counts. His case was set to start around 1 p.m. after the judge delayed the original morning start time, without giving a reason, court spokesman Thom McCollum said.
Military officials say 19-year-old Danny Chen shot himself last year in Afghanistan after weeks of emotional and physical abuse. According to court documents, Chen was kicked, dragged from his tent and had sandbags tied to his arms.
He was called racial slurs and forced to speak to his fellow soldiers in Chinese, according to his family, with whom he shared details of his ordeal. For months, beginning during training, soldiers in his platoon peppered him with racial insults such as "Jackie Chen" and "Dragon Lady," his family said. On the day he died, they say he was forced to crawl about 100 yards across gravel carrying his equipment while his fellow soldiers threw rocks at him.
He had been deployed for two months when he was found dead in a guardhouse.
Eight soldiers are facing charges ranging from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with Chen's death.
Besides Holcomb, four other soldiers are also charged with negligent homicide. The judge's decision in Holcomb's case could be an indicator for the other soldiers.
Chinese-American community members, elected officials, documentary filmmakers and supporters of the Chen family held a news conference Monday in Manhattan's Chinatown, where Chen was born and raised. Many of the group members were making the 10-hour drive to Fayetteville for the trial.
Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a nonprofit advocacy group that worked with the Chen family, said the community wants justice for Chen. OuYang has called for military reform.
"This death could have been avoided, and we were fighting two wars at the time," OuYang said. "To have Pvt. Danny Chen's life wasted in this fashion is inexcusable. It could have been prevented and no soldier, including Asia- American soldiers', life is dispensable like this."
The military is preparing for an influx of Chinese reporters and international media attention.
Chen was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, but was under the command of a Fort Bragg general in Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. James Huggins requested the trial be transferred to Fort Bragg, which military officials said worked out better logistically. Chen's family also lobbied for the trials to be held stateside..