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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Sergeant Adam Holcomb, the first of eight soldiers to be tried in connection with U.S. Army Private Danny Chen’s suicide, has been sentenced to 30 days in jail and $1,182 forfeiture of pay. The penalties, tied to two counts of maltreatment and one count of assault, were minimal compared to what Holcomb would have faced had he been convicted of negligent homicide and reckless endangerment — charges that could have resulted in dishonorable discharge from the army and a 17-and-a-half year jail term.
The verdict, determined by a court-martial jury based in the Fort Bragg, North Carolina military base, was the outcome of five days of testimony by several fellow soldiers, family and friends of Chen — in addition to a U.S. Air Force medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Chen’s remains.
Transcripts of the proceedings weren’t available by press time.
Chen, a 19-year-old from Chinatown, is believed to have fatally shot himself in a guard tower in Kandahar, Afghanistan last October.
Chen’s parents, Su Zhen and Yan Tao Chen — who reside on the Lower East Side — made the 10-and-a-half hour trip by car from New York to Fort Bragg last week to attend the trials. They weren’t available for comment by press time.
Liz OuYang, president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, the primary advocate in the Chen case, was distraught by the jury’s verdict — particularly since it exempts Holcomb from being discharged from the army.
“We were hoping he would get the maximum prison time of two years [for the maltreatment and assault counts],” she said. “To allow Sergeant Adam Holcomb to remain in the military [will make] Asian-American parents feel very hesitant to allow their children in the army.”
New York City Council Member Margaret Chin, representing Lower Manhattan, was outraged by the sentencing and is requesting that Lieutenant General Daniel Allyn, chief of the Fort Bragg corps, still consider kicking Holcomb out of the army. Citing military regulations, Chin said Holcomb could still be expelled from the army by way of separation proceedings independent of the court-martial.
“You can see a pattern of abuse that was taking place that really affected him tremendously,” Chin said. “Danny was being called all kinds of names, and [the jury] didn’t think those names were racial slurs.”
“To allow Holcomb to remain in the armed forces is to condone his racist and abusive behavior.”
According to Chin, one soldier testified that, when a soldier witnesses a fellow soldier getting “smoked” — an Army term signifying strenuous, punishment-induced exercise — he or she isn’t supposed to get involved. Some soldiers testified saying Chen was being “smoked” for no reason at all, the council member noted.
Other soldiers from Chen’s unit testified that Chen was timid and wasn’t physically suited for a war zone.
Chin argued that if Chen, indeed, wasn’t physically prepared for combat in Afghanistan, the Army should have never assigned him to that unit. “From the testimony, it really doesn’t make sense why he was sent there. But it doesn’t justify the superior officers who are in charge of Danny to treat him like that and to drive him to the point where he didn’t see any way out.”
Chen wasn’t the only soldier who was maltreated by Holcomb: Private Marcus Merritt told the jury he also contemplated suicide after being verbally abused by the sergeant, according to reports.
Merritt said he was mockingly called “niglet,” among other racial slurs, and threatened to send him home in a body bag.
One witness alleged that Chen expressed thoughts of suicide in the days prior to his death, and that his parents said they were disowning him when their son briefed them on his deployment to Afghanistan, according to news reports by the New York Times and Reuters.
Chen’s father, refuting the latter claim, asserted that he was fully supportive of his son entering the army.
The father was quoted in the Times article as saying, “I never disowned my son because, when we Chinese raise our children, it’s they who will take care of us when we grow old. So he was like a pearl in my palm.”
Asked for comment on the sentencing, Army Spokesperson George Wright said, “I know there’s a great desire for justice. We share that, but in our justice system, there are provisions for review and appeal.”
The Court-Martial Convening Authority typically takes three months to review the jury’s decision, after which Holcomb has the right to appeal before the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, according to military law.
Seven other soldiers from Chen’s unit — whose domestic base is Fort Wainwright, Alaska — also face charges in connection with Chen’s death and will be tried by courts-martial in the coming months.
According to the Army, Specialist Ryan Offutt’s court-martial will take place Aug. 13-15, followed by Staff Sergeant Blaine Dugas’s trial on Aug. 16-17 and Specialist Thomas Curtis’s trial on Aug. 27-29. The courts-martial for Staff Sergeant Andrew Van Bockel and First Lieutenant Daniel Schwartz are scheduled for October, and the trial dates for Sergeant Jeffrey Hurst and Sergeant Travis Carden are pending.