FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - A Chinese-American soldier in Afghanistan was forced to crawl about 50 yards (45.7 meters) as punishment while his superiors yelled and hurled rocks at him hours before he took his own life, a fellow soldier testified on Friday in a court-martial hearing.
U.S. Army Private Danny Chen killed himself by a gunshot in a guard tower in southern Afghanistan last October.
One of his superiors, Sergeant Adam Holcomb, is standing trial in Fort Bragg on allegations his physical mistreatment and racial harassment pushed Chen to commit suicide.
Holcomb, 30, has pleaded not guilty and faces nearly 18 years of confinement and a dishonorable discharge if convicted on charges that include negligent homicide.
On Friday, Holcomb’s defense lawyers called a dozen witnesses in an attempt to shift the focus from his conduct to what some described as Chen’s shortcomings as a soldier.
The soldiers described harsh conditions at the remote combat outpost where stress ran high, politically incorrect nicknames were used and soldiers endured physical discipline when they failed to measure up.
A service member who served with Chen, Specialist Nicholas Sepeda, said Chen was not physically fit when he arrived in Afghanistan and their superiors frequently put him through “corrective training” involving push-ups, squats and other harsher measures.
He described the scene of Chen being forced to crawl to a guard tower while several non-commissioned officers threw rocks at him and yelled, “Incoming!”
“I didn’t think it was right they were throwing rocks at him,” Sepeda said.
On one occasion, Holcomb pulled Chen out of his bunk and dragged him across sharp rocks, lacerating his back, Sepeda said. Sepeda took photographs of the injuries.
“He was treated like dirt, wasn’t he?” a military prosecutor asked Sepeda on cross-examination. “Yes he was,” Sepeda replied.
But Sepeda said non-commissioned officers at the outpost disciplined or “smoked” other solders, including himself.
Sepeda said he did not think Chen was targeted for harassment as much as he initially thought immediately after Chen’s suicide.
‘HAD TO PROD HIM TO LEARN’
Sergeant William Zade, another defense witness, said Chen often showed up late for guard duty and frequently fell asleep in the guard tower and could not be trusted to go out on patrols.
“Basic skills — he was deficient in all of them,” Zade said. “We had to prod him to learn.”
Specialist Zachary Bolin, a medic assigned to the outpost, said anytime he saw Chen being disciplined, he thought there was a reason for it.
Bolin said he heard Chen referred to as “dragon lady.”
Holcomb is accused of using racial slurs and failing to stop his subordinates from using similar offensive language.
“It was just a nickname,” Bolin said. “It wasn’t said with anger or disrespect.”
Private First Class Timothy Carner described what he called bizarre behavior by Chen, including a time when Chen chose to sleep in a portable toilet.
“I asked him about it,” Carner said. “He didn’t feel like he deserved to sleep in a bed, so he went and slept in a port a-potty. I felt it was a very strange decision to make.”
Holcomb’s lawyers plan to call three more defense witness on Saturday, the fifth day of the trial.
Seven of Chen’s other superiors from the Alaska-based 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, are also charged in the case and will be tried separately.
Editing by Kevin Gray and Peter Cooney