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WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - The first of eight service members charged in the alleged hazing and death of a 19-year-old Asian-American soldier faces court-martial this week in a case activists say highlights the need for reforms in the military to prevent racial abuse.
The U.S. Army charged the soldiers after officials said Private Danny Chen, born in New York City to Chinese immigrant parents, committed suicide by shooting himself in a guard tower in southern Afghanistan on October 3, 2011.
The men, all Chen's superiors, are accused of subjecting him to weeks of disparaging taunts and physical mistreatment. The allegations include tying sandbags to his arms, throwing rocks and water bottles at him, making him speak Chinese instead of English and calling him names such as "gook," "slants," "chink" and "egg roll."
The case has galvanized the Asian-American community in Chen's hometown of New York and elsewhere. A few dozen supporters are traveling by plane or van to accompany his parents to the military trial starting on Tuesday at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
They are seeking justice for Chen and demanding that the military institute more safeguards against racial and ethnic prejudice, said Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the OCA, which represents Asian-Americans.
"This really touches such a raw nerve," OuYang said. "For our community, this could have easily have happened to any one of us or someone we know because of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes."
Military leaders have said the U.S. armed forces already have a "zero tolerance" policy toward bullying and hazing, as well as training procedures aimed at curbing such incidents.
Every member of the Army is expected to guard against and report any form of hazing, a spokesman said on Monday.
"The Army has been and continues to be a values-based organization where everyone is encouraged to do what is right by treating others as they should be treated -- with dignity and respect," Army spokesman Paul Prince said in an email.
"Hazing is fundamentally in opposition to our values and is prohibited," he said. "We enforce these standards, and when our soldiers fail to meet them, we take appropriate action."
The first soldier to stand trial in Chen's death will be Sergeant Adam Michael Holcomb, a 30-year-old infantryman who joined the Army in August 2007.
Holcomb is charged with negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, communicating a threat, assault, maltreatment of a subordinate, dereliction of duty and violating a lawful general regulation. He has pleaded not guilty.
He faces up to 17 years and nine months of confinement and a dishonorable discharge from the Army if convicted of allegations including dragging Chen by the wrist over a gravel path.
According to Holcomb's charge sheet, he also addressed Chen with racial slurs such as "dragon lady" and didn't stop his subordinates from using similar offensive language.
The most serious charge, faced by Holcomb and four others from the Alaska-based 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, accuses the men of negligently causing Chen to kill himself after he endured their hazing and maltreatment from late August to early October 2011.
A Fort Bragg spokesman said Holcomb's defense attorneys were unavailable for comment on Monday.
Chen was the only Chinese-American in his unit. Asian-Americans comprise just 4 percent of the active duty U.S. military. According to the Defense Department, there are approximately 60,000 Asian-Americans out of 1.4 million active duty military members.
Eric Tang, director of the Social Justice Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, said anecdotal evidence shows Asian-American service members have long faced prejudice. During World War Two and the Korean and Vietnam wars, they routinely were used as models to show "what the enemy looked like," he said.
The accusations in the Chen case, if proven true, are indicative of a racial violence that goes beyond hazing or bullying, Tang said.
"I think what happened here is a much deeper form of racism where these people knew exactly what they were doing," Tang said. "They were breaking this kid down to make him feel like he was no different than the enemy."
Courts-martial proceedings for the other soldiers facing charges related to Chen's death are scheduled to run through October. Chen's platoon leader, 1st Lieutenant Daniel Schwartz, is among the accused and faces charges of dereliction of duty.
The government is providing an interpreter to translate Holcomb's trial for Chen's parents, immigrants who do not speak English. Danny Chen was their only child.
"They want justice for their son, and they're determined to get it," said OuYang, who also will attend the court-martial. "We want to send a loud and clear message that Private Danny Chen's life is not cheap."
Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Cynthia Osterman