Fort Bragg, N.C. — The first of eight courts-martial began Tuesday for U.S. soldiers accused of hazing a Chinese-American recruit over his ethnicity until he killed himself in Afghanistan last year.
Sgt. Adam Holcomb of Youngstown, Ohio, faces a slew of charges, the most serious of which is negligent homicide, and could get nearly 18 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
The court-martial is expected to last through Friday at Fort Bragg, where six of the other seven military trials in the case will also be held. One trial is set for Fort Wainwight, Alaska.
The other soldiers face charges ranging from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter.
Military officials say 19-year-old Danny Chen shot himself last October in a guardhouse after weeks of emotional and physical abuse.
According to court documents, Chen was kicked, dragged from his tent, forced to crawl on a gravel path and had sandbags tied to his arms. The son of Chinese immigrants, he also was called racial slurs and forced to speak to his fellow soldiers in Chinese, according to documents.
He had been deployed for two months when he committed suicide.
During jury selection Tuesday, defense attorneys questioned the military members who will decide the case about so-called "corrective training" and the use of nicknames among soldiers.
One juror described nicknames as "terms of endearment" in a close-knit unit.
Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a nonprofit advocacy group that has worked with the Chen family, said the alleged offenses by Holcomb and others went far beyond nicknames.
"I have to have faith in the common sense of this panel to know what are nicknames, that are terms of endearment, and those (names) that are outright offensive," OuYang said.
Chen was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division based at Fort Wainwright, but he was under the command of a Fort Bragg general in Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. James Huggins requested the trial be transferred to Fort Bragg, which military officials said worked out better logistically. Chen's family also lobbied for the trials to be held stateside.
The military is preparing for an influx of Chinese reporters and international media attention.
Chinese-American community members, elected officials, documentary filmmakers and supporters of the Chen family held a news conference Monday in Manhattan's Chinatown, where Chen was born and raised. Many of the group members made the 10-hour drive to Fayetteville for the trial.
"The chain of command, in this case, has failed Pvt. Danny Chen," OuYang said Tuesday outside the Fort Bragg courtroom, as she called for military reform.