Even before the US Army sent him to Afghanistan, supporters say, Private Daniel Chen was fighting a personal war.
Fellow soldiers at a base in Georgia teased him about his Chinese name, crying out “Chen!” in an exaggerated Asian accent. They called him “Jackie Chen,” a reference to the Hollywood action star Jackie Chan (成龍). People would ask him 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, according to diary entries and other accounts cited by a community activist.
On Oct. 3, the 19-year-old Chen was found dead in a guardhouse in Afghanistan with what the army said was apparently a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
On Wednesday, the army announced charges against eight soldiers in his death, saying Chen was a victim of illegal hazing. Five of those accused were charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. The alleged offenses also included maltreatment, assault and threats.
The military released few details of Chen’s death. However, family members and community activists said they suspect the bullying might have driven him to suicide.
“Whether suicide or homicide, those responsible for mistreating Danny are responsible for his death,” said Elizabeth OuYang, a community activist who is representing his parents, Chinese immigrants who live near New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood.
Attorneys for the defendants could not immediately be located. A sister of Staff Sergeant Andrew Van Bockel, Bretta Van Bockel, had no comment. Relatives of the others could not be reached.
Eugene Fidell, an expert on military law and president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said he could not recall a similar criminal case. However, he could not say for certain whether this represents a first.
Fidell 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.”
“Can I imagine somebody being bullied in the military to the point of taking his or her own life? Yes. These people are young people. You’re at an age of vulnerability as well as strength,” he added.
Activists said Chen’s case has highlighted the military’s poor treatment of Asian-Americans, who remain a tiny percentage of new recruits even as the percentage of blacks, Hispanics, women and other groups has grown.
Pentagon officials would not comment on Wednesday on the specifics of the case. However, Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby said hazing was not tolerated.
“That’s what this uniform requires. And when we don’t, there’s a justice system in place to deal with it,” Kirby said. “That’s what we’re seeing here in the case of Private Chen.”
The details of Chen’s alleged hazing came from Facebook and e-mail messages, discussions with cousins and a few pages of Chen’s journal released by the army, OuYang said at a Chinatown news conference.
Chen’s relatives said they were encouraged by the charges.