One night in October, an Army private named Danny Chen apparently angered his fellow soldiers by forgetting to turn off the water heater after taking a shower at his outpost in Afghanistan, his family said.
In the relatives’ account, the soldiers pulled Private Chen out of bed and dragged him across the floor; they forced him to crawl on the ground while they pelted him with rocks and taunted him with ethnic slurs. Finally, the family said, they ordered him to do pull-ups with a mouthful of water — while forbidding him from spitting it out.
It was the culmination of what the family called a campaign of hazing against Private Chen, 19, who was born in Chinatown in Manhattan, the son of Chinese immigrants. Hours later, he was found dead in a guard tower, from what a military statement on Wednesday called “an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound” to the head.
On Wednesday, the American military announced that the Army had charged eight soldiers in Private Chen’s battalion in connection with the death.
It was an extraordinary development in a case that has stirred intense reactions in the Asian population in New York and elsewhere and provoked debate over what some experts say is the somewhat ambivalent relationship between the Asian population and the United States military.
The authorities have not publicized much information about the circumstances of the death. Family members said they had gleaned bits of information about the hazing in private briefings with American military officials. But the array of charges announced — the most serious of which were manslaughter and negligent homicide — suggested that military prosecutors believed that the soldiers’ actions drove Private Chen to commit suicide.
Private Chen’s relatives and friends said they welcomed the announcement of the charges, as did Asian-American advocacy groups, which have been pressing the Army to conduct a transparent investigation into the death and to improve the treatment of Asians in the armed forces. “It’s of some comfort and relief to learn that the Army has taken this seriously,” Private Chen’s mother, Su Zhen Chen, said through an interpreter at a news conference in Chinatown. Private Chen was her only child. Private Chen’s parents — his father has worked as a chef in Chinese restaurants, and his mother as a seamstress — live in an East Village housing project.
Private Chen was deployed to Afghanistan in August after completing basic training in April.
In a journal he kept while in basic training and in letters, Private Chen mentioned that other soldiers teased him because of his ethnicity. “Everyone here jokingly makes fun of me for being Asian,” he said in one letter to his parents. In another letter two days later, he wrote, “People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time; I’m running out of jokes to come back at them.”
At a news conference on Wednesday, a Pentagon spokesman would not discuss details about the case, but he acknowledged that hazing, while against the rules of the military, occasionally occurred among its members. He insisted that the armed forces had a zero-tolerance policy toward it. “We treat each other with respect and dignity, or we go home,” the spokesman, Capt. John Kirby, said. “There’s a justice system in place to deal with it. And that’s what we’re seeing here in the case of Private Chen.”
The accused soldiers, all members of a unit based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, included an officer and seven enlisted soldiers, the military said in a statement. Lawyers for the eight could not be reached for comment on the Army’s charges.
The case is among very few from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts in which American soldiers have been implicated in the deaths of fellow soldiers.
In October, several Marines were ordered court-martialed for their roles in the death of an Asian-American Marine, Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, from California, who killed himself in April in Afghanistan after being subjected to what military prosecutors said was hazing.
Until Wednesday, the military had said little publicly about the investigation into Private Chen’s death, and in the vacuum of information, suspicion flourished among relatives, friends and advocates in the Asian-American community over whether American military investigators were planning to whitewash the inquiry.
But military officials insisted all along that they were conducting a thorough investigation and that its integrity depended on the tight control of information.
Sgt. First Class Alan G. Davis, a spokesman for the military’s headquarters in southern Afghanistan, said Wednesday that there had been two investigations into Private Chen’s death: one conducted by the regional command, which resulted in the charges, and one by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, which is continuing.
The eight suspects, who have not been formally detained, are still stationed in Afghanistan, though on a different base and under increased supervision, another military spokesman, Lt. Col. Dave Connolly, said.
Private Chen’s relatives and advocates for the family said the charges caught them by surprise. “I didn’t think the case would move this fast,” said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation. Reaching for a Chinese aphorism, he added, “You cannot wrap a fire with paper: the truth will come out.” “We are cautiously optimistic about today’s news,” he said, adding that the authorities “have to create an atmosphere in which Asian-Americans feel safe.”
Elizabeth R. OuYang, president of the New York chapter of OCA, a civil rights group that has been working with the family, vowed to continue pressing military officials on the case. She has helped keep the matter in the public eye by organizing a prayer vigil and a march in memory of Private Chen. She has also met at the Pentagon with Army officials to emphasize the importance of the case and to demand measures to improve the treatment of Asians in the military.
The eight charged in the case are members of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. Five of the soldiers — Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, Specialist Thomas P. Curtis and Specialist Ryan J. Offutt — were accused of involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide and assault consummated by battery, among other crimes, the military said.
First Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, the only officer among the eight defendants, was charged with dereliction of duty, the statement said. Sgt. Travis F. Carden was charged with assault and maltreatment, and Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas was charged with dereliction of duty and making a false statement, the statement said.