NEW YORK — Pentagon officials say they have transferred eight soldiers to another base amid allegations that they mistreated one of their comrades shortly before he committed suicide in a guardhouse in Afghanistan.
The soldiers face charges ranging from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of 19-year-old Army Pvt. Daniel Chen of New York City. Chen’s relatives say he endured weeks of racial teasing and name calling while in training, then was subjected to hazing after he was deployed to Afghanistan.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said Wednesday the military was taking a zero-tolerance attitude toward soldiers who mistreat their comrades.
“That’s what this uniform requires. And when we don’t, there’s a justice system in place to deal with it,” Kirby said. “Hazing’s not tolerated in the military. If it’s found and it’s proven, it’s dealt with.”
The eight soldiers are part of an infantry regiment based in Fort Wainright, Alaska. The soldiers are still in Afghanistan but have been relieved of their duties and confined to a different base, the military said. The next step is a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for a court martial. The proceedings are expected to be held in Afghanistan.
The two most serious charges, involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, carry prison sentences of up to 10 years and three years, respectively.
At a news conference in New York’s Chinatown, Elizabeth OuYang, a community activist who is representing his parents, said Chen had complained about the teasing in Facebook and email messages, discussions with cousins and in his journal. The Army has released excerpts of the journal to his parents.
Fellow soldiers at a base in Georgia teased him about his Chinese name, crying out “Chen!” in an exaggerated Asian accent, OuYang said. 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, OuYang said.
On Oct. 3, Chen was found dead in a guardhouse in Afghanistan with what the Army said was apparently a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“Whether suicide or homicide, those responsible for mistreating Danny are responsible for his death,” OuYang said.
Attorneys for the defendants could not immediately be located.
Eugene Fidell, an expert on military law and former 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.”
In 2010, three Army sergeants were punished after Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm of Willard, Ohio, killed himself 10 days after arriving in Iraq with a platoon based in Fort Bliss, Texas. Wilhelm’s family said he was being bullied and forced to run for miles with rocks in his pockets.
Two sergeants were imprisoned for six months and three months, respectively, on charges of cruelty and maltreatment. The third was convicted of obstructing justice and given a one-grade reduction in pay.
Activists said Chen’s case has raised questions about the military’s treatment of its tiny Asian-American minority.
“We love our country and we want to serve our country, but it’s not worth it if we can’t be protected from people who are supposed to be on our side,” OuYang said.
In 2008 people of Asian descent made up only 1.8 percent of new military recruits, even though they represent 4.15 percent of the total population of American 18-to-24-year-olds, a Pentagon report said. The percentages of whites, blacks and Hispanics reflected the wider population more closely.
On Wednesday Chen’s relatives said they were encouraged by the Pentagon’s action against the eight soldiers.
“We realize that Danny will never return, but it gives us some hope,” Yen Tao Chen, his father, said through a translator.
Chen was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based in Fort Wainwright.
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.
Offutt’s mother, Carol Tate of Sharon, Pa., told The (Sharon) Herald that she has known about the charges for a while and has talked to her son.
“I think there’s a lot of things that really haven’t been brought up,” she said, but declined further comment.
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.
Associated Press writers Lolita Baldor at the Pentagon; Meghan Barr, Deepti Hajela and Verena Dobnik in New York; Patrick Quinn in Kabul, Afghanistan; Linda Ball in Dallas; and researchers Monika Mathur, Jennifer Farrar, Barbara Sambriski, Rhonda Shafner and Judith Ausuebel contributed to this story.