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American soldier hazed, called racial slurs, commits suicide

By David Zucchino –

FORT. BRAGG, N.C.—Pvt. Danny Chen was so distraught over racial slurs and harsh treatment by his sergeant in Afghanistan that he spoke one day last fall of committing suicide, a fellow soldier testified at the sergeant’s court-martial Thursday.

Less than a week later, Chen, a slight and shy 19-year-old Chinese American, killed himself with a single shot under his chin at a remote base in Afghanistan. Thursday’s testimony by Pfc. Degan Berhe was the first in three days of hearings to directly link the actions of Sgt. Adam Holcomb to Chen’s Oct. 3 suicide.

“He told me to my face, sir, that he wanted to commit suicide because of the way he was treated,’’ Berhe told a military prosecutor. “He told me (Holcomb) kept picking on him.’’

Holcomb, a strapping 30-year-old sergeant, is accused of hazing and hounding Chen into committing suicide. He is charged with negligent homicide, assault and reckless endangerment, among other counts, and could be sentenced to nearly 18 years in prison if convicted of all charges.

Holcomb is one of eight soldiers who prosecutors say hazed, kicked or tormented Chen in the weeks leading up to his suicide at tiny Combat Outpost Palace in Kandahar province. The others face courts-martial later this year.

Like other soldiers from the base who have testified, Berhe said Holcomb taunted Chen with racial slurs, angering and humiliating the private. “He hated it. That wasn’t who he was,’’ Berhe said.

When Chen’s body was recovered from the guard tower where he shot himself, two messages were written in ink on his left arm, a military forensic pathologist testified. They read: “Tell my parents I’m sorry’’ and “Veggie — pull the plug.’’

The pathologist was the last of 17 government witnesses as the prosecution rested its case late Thursday. Holcomb’s lawyers moved to have the negligent homicide and reckless endangerment charges dropped. The military judge said he would rule on the motion later.

The defense says Chen killed himself because his immigrant parents had disowned him for joining the Army rather than graduating from college, and because he was a poor soldier who couldn’t handle the demands of a combat zone.

Defense lawyers have also said that most of the punishment meted out by Holcomb was “corrective training’’ authorized for the type of infractions repeatedly committed by Chen, including sleeping on guard duty and forgetting his helmet.

Under aggressive questioning by defense attorney Dennis Hernon, Berhe conceded that he didn’t report Chen’s suicide threat for four or five days or attempt to have Chen’s automatic rifle taken away. Hernon also showed that Berhe told an investigator he believed Chen was joking.

“You had every opportunity to prevent this, but you didn’t do that, did you?’’ the lawyer asked Berhe.

“No, sir,’’ the soldier replied softly.

Berhe said he had to wait to report Chen’s suicide threat until he could get to a nearby base and tell his direct supervisor, a sergeant. He said he didn’t trust some of the senior noncommissioned officers at his own base because they “were a little bit racist.’’

Four or five sergeants heard Holcomb call Chen “Dragon Lady’’ more than once, but did nothing, Berhe said. Several soldiers have testified that Holcomb dragged Chen out of his bunk and across sharp rocks, bloodying his back, as punishment for breaking a base rule.

Hernon pointed out that Berhe, who is black, allowed another soldier to nickname him “Black Cherry.’’ Asked why he considered “Dragon Lady’’ a slur but “Black Cherry’’ an innocent nickname, Berhe replied: “The way he was saying it to me, sir, he wasn’t saying it in a racial way.’’

Another black soldier, Pfc. Anthony Wearing, testified that Holcomb called a mixed-race soldier “half-breed.’’ But Wearing said neither he nor the other soldier reported the slur to their chain of command.

Pfc. Bryan Johnson, who befriended Chen at a base in Alaska before both men deployed to Afghanistan last summer, said Chen was devastated after his father—by Chen’s account—disowned him. Chen missed a formation in Alaska and was found in the fetal position in his bed, refusing to speak, Johnson said.

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