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Military Court Convicts US Soldier in Hazing Trial

Danny Chen's father, Yao Tan Chen, and mother, Su Zhen Chen, stand to the left and right of Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, at a press conference in New York on January 5, 2012.
A military court in the U.S. state of North Carolina has convicted a staff sergeant in the hazing-related death of Private Danny Chen, a Chinese-American soldier who killed himself while on duty in Afghanistan.

The court-martial in Fort Bragg convicted Andrew Van Bockel of one specification of hazing, three specifications of dereliction of duty and two specifications of maltreatment.

The jury sentenced Van Bockel Wednesday to a reprimand, reduction in rank two levels and 60 days of hard labor, 45 of which the court determined he had already served in pre-trial confinement.

The accused is one of eight soldiers charged in relation to the death of Chen, who shot himself in the head on October 3, 2011, after repeated physical and emotional mistreatment by members of his unit.

George Wright, a spokesman for the U.S. Army at the Pentagon, said Wednesday that the Army respects the decision of the jury.

But Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York branch of the Organization of Chinese Americans, expressed outrage over the sentence, which she called "light."

She said what Van Bockel did to Chen was not corrective training but torture.

"He not only fostered a climate of unrelenting and escalating hazing that ultimately cost Danny his life, he instigated the hazing," she said in a statement. "Had Sergeant Van Bockel done his duty to stop what he and lower-ranking superiors were doing, Danny would be alive today."

Chen, a 19-year-old U.S.-born native of New York City, was one of the weaker members of his platoon who, at times, forgot his equipment and fell asleep on duty. Soldiers picked on his race, calling him derogatory names like "fortune cookie," "dragon lady" and "chink."

They also put him through intense physical tests, forcing him to do push-ups with his mouth full of water and crawl across the ground while his superiors pelted him with rocks.

On one occasion, he was dragged across the gravel on his back after leaving on the shower water pump. In another instance, Chen was ordered to shout instructions to his unit in Chinese although no one else spoke the language.

The U.S. Army says it does not tolerate racism or hazing, and officials charged some of the accused with negligent homicide, a heavy charge that was dropped in each of the trials.

The accused have been convicted of lesser offenses ranging from assault, racial maltreatment, hazing and dereliction of duty. The punishments for the other six superiors convicted ranged from jail time, discharge for bad conduct, forced labor, reduction in rank, reprimand and fines.

The case has stirred a debate inside and outside of the military about how to prepare young soldiers for the pressures of war without mistreating them. While the Army says it is working to discourage hazing, former members of the armed forces say superiors often ignore certain behaviors they may consider to be peer bonding exercises that test the mental and physical limits of soldiers.

OuYang said it is those demeaning, abusive behaviors that drove Chen to suicide.

An eighth and final soldier remains to be tried in the case.