FT. BRAGG, N.C. -- Sgt. Adam Holcomb bombarded Danny Chen, a shy, 19-year-old Army private, with racial slurs and bloodied Chen’s back by dragging him across rocky ground for disobeying a platoon rule, several former members of Holcomb’s platoon testified at his court-martial Wednesday.
Military prosecutors elicited the testimony in the second day of the proceedings to buttress charges that Holcomb hazed and hounded Chen, a Chinese American, into committing suicide at a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan on Oct. 3. Holcomb, one of eight soldiers charged in connection with Chen’s death, faces charges of negligent homicide, assault, reckless endangerment and other counts.
Holcomb, 30, is the first to face court-martial in a case that has focused renewed attention on allegations of hazing and racism in the Army, where Asian Americans are a distinct minority. Courts-martial for the other seven soldiers, including an officer, are scheduled for later this year.
In their opening statements, prosecutors had said testimony would show that soldiers taunted Chen with racial slurs, kicked him and pelted him with rocks in merciless hazing in the weeks before the private’s suicide.
An African American soldier, Pvt. Marcus Merritt, testified Wednesday that Holcomb addressed him with a racial slur and threatened to "kill me and put me in a body bag and send me home.’’ Merritt said he became suicidal after enduring punishment and humiliation from Holcomb.
"He was in my face constantly,’’ Merritt testified when asked why he had contemplated suicide. "All the stuff he did had a long-lasting effect on me.’’
Under cross-examination, Merritt conceded that he knew Holcomb wasn’t serious about killing him. But he also said he feared the sergeant, telling a military psychiatrist he wanted to kill Holcomb.
Holcomb’s immediate superior, Staff Sgt. Darren Holt, told the military panel of 10 officers and non-commissioned officers that he confronted Holcomb after the sergeant dragged Chen across sharp, baseball-sized rocks in late September. Holcomb was angry that Chen had ignored posted rules to turn off power to a water heater after taking a shower.
Holt said he told Holcomb that physically abusing a soldier was wrong and reported the incident to superiors. "I verbally counseled him [Holcomb] . . . and made it clear that was unacceptable,’’ Holt said.
Chen shot himself under the chin in a base guard tower a week after the dragging incident, according to the Army.
Chen’s death outraged some Chinese American activists in New York City’s Chinatown, where Chen grew up with his immigrant parents. Several activists are attending the court-martial, along with journalists from China.
Holcomb’s military lawyers have said Chen killed himself because his parents had disowned him for joining the Army instead of attending college. They have portrayed Chen as an incompetent soldier who endangered his platoon and required constant discipline for such violations as sleeping on guard duty or reporting for his guard post without his helmet.
Defense lawyers have also said that nicknames -- even those with racially tinged overtones -- were common "terms of endearment’’ in the small, tight-knit platoon. One African American platoon member, they said, encouraged soldiers to call him "Black Mamba.’’
Under cross-examination by the defense, former members of the platoon conceded that most discipline meted out by Holcomb was justified by Chen’s failure to follow orders or regulations. Such "corrective training,’’ especially in combat zones, is an accepted way to improve soldiers’ performance, according to testimony.
Several soldiers testified that Chen never gave any overt indication that he was contemplating suicide. The platoon medic, Spec. Zachary Bolin, who treated Chen’s back abrasions at Holcomb’s request, said Chen denied suicidal thoughts when Bolin asked him about it.
Chen seemed "an outcast" after joining the platoon in the middle of its deployment to tiny Combat Outpost Palace in Kandahar Province, Bolin said. But Chen later "seemed to improve and fit in better,’’ he said.
A few soldiers said Chen did not complain about Holcomb’s racial slurs, which included "Dragon Lady,’’ "Egg Roll’’ and worse. Others said Holcomb uttered some slurs over the radio, where they were heard by the entire platoon, adding to Chen’s humiliation.
Spec. Justin Christensen, who described seeing Holcomb angrily drag Chen, said the slurs were not terms of endearment. "It’s just not acceptable,’’ he testified.
PFC Adrian Douglas, who described himself as half-black and half-Japanese, said Chen told him he resented Holcomb’s slurs. "He said it made him angry . . . but he couldn’t do anything about it,’’ Douglas said.
Holcomb once kicked Chen out of his sleeping quarters and forced him to bed down on the ground, declaring Chen "unworthy’’ of sleeping indoors, Douglas said. Holcomb, who has pleaded not guilty, faces nearly 18 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
PFC Joshua Morgan, who described himself as Chen’s best friend, said Chen never mentioned suicide but did tell him that his parents had disowned him.
Chen’s father, Yan Tao Chen, echoing testimony by his wife a day earlier, said his son had never been disowned. Speaking through an interpreter, Chen testified that he and his son remained "as close as brothers’’ after Danny joined the Army.
While he would have preferred that his son attend college, Chen said, he was proud that Danny was serving his country.
"I thought it was a glorious thing,’’ he said.
The court-martial will continue Thursday.