KABUL/NEW YORK (Reuters) - - The U.S. Army has charged eight soldiers deployed to Afghanistan in the death of Private Danny Chen, a 19-year-old Chinese-American who was bullied and taunted by fellow troops over his heritage.
Chen was found in a guard tower in southern Afghanistan after apparently shooting himself, NATO-led forces in Afghanistan said on Wednesday.
Chen’s platoon leader, 1st Lieutenant Daniel Schwartz, was among the accused, charged with dereliction of duty. Other soldiers face charges including involuntary manslaughter, assault and negligent homicide.
The case has resonated in Chen’s hometown of New York City, where his mother gave an emotional press conference calling for justice for her son while Asian-American activists criticized the Army for tolerating hazing and racial discrimination.
“Whether suicide or homicide, those responsible for mistreating Danny caused his death. They must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for the killing of Danny Chen,” said Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the OCA, which represents Asian-Americans.
The Pentagon called Chen’s death a “tragic incident” but strongly rejected accusations that hazing and racial discrimination were tolerated.
“Hazing is not tolerated in the military. If it’s found and it’s proven, it’s dealt with,” said Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
“We treat each other with dignity and respect. That’s what this uniform requires. And when we don‘t, there is a justice system in place to deal with it. And that’s what we’re seeing here in the case of Private Chen.”
An Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the eight men had been moved to an undisclosed location for their own security.
The charges were the result of a commander’s inquiry into the death of Chen, an only child born in the United States to immigrant parents.
“When Danny told (me) that he wanted to serve in the Army, (I) didn’t want him to go. But he was insistent,” his mother Su Zhen Chen told a news conference in New York City’s Chinatown. She does not speak English and her comments were loosely translated through an interpreter.
“Danny was a very good student. At his school, all his teachers, all his classmates, he had lots of friends. He gets along well with others,” the translator added, saying his mother could not figure out “why they would do this in the Army.”
An Army criminal investigation into the circumstances of Chen’s death remains open, said a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command.
“Aside from investigating the actual cause and manner of Private Chen’s death, we are also investigating the circumstances leading up to his death,” U.S.-based spokesman Chris Grey said in an email.
“You can be sure that CID will continue to conduct a professional and very thorough investigation. We are not releasing any details to the public at this point to protect the integrity of our ongoing investigation.”
Chen’s family has not concluded whether he committed suicide or was killed, OuYang said, adding there were no indications of depression based on his postings from Afghanistan.
Commenting on the racial taunting Chen allegedly suffered, OuYang said: “Clearly ... the Army’s diversity training is not effective.”
The charges come barely two months after three U.S. Marines were ordered to face court-martial on charges they physically abused and humiliated a fellow Marine who later killed himself while they were serving in Afghanistan.
Lance Corporal Harry Lew, 21, shot himself during a patrol in April after he was allegedly beaten and hazed by others in his unit for falling asleep while on sentry duty.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Eric Walsh