Chen advocates object to soldiers’ light sentences

U.S. Army soldier Thomas Curtis being taken away in handcuffs after his sentence in connection with Chinatown native Danny Chen’s death. Photo courtesy of OCA-NY

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  The fourth and fifth of eight soldiers being tried in connection with the apparent suicide of 19-year-old U.S. Army Private Danny Chen, a native of Chinatown, have been convicted of bullying the Asian-American soldier prior to his death.

In addition to hazing, 27-year-old Specialist Thomas Curtis, one of six superiors who reportedly abused Chen, pled guilty to maltreating him by kicking, dragging and striking him during active duty in Afganistan. The superior also reportedly mocked Chen by making him speak in Chinese to fellow soldiers and ordering him to wear a construction hard hat. Curtis has been sentenced to three months behind bars, with seven days of credit for time served and a reduction in military rank from specialist to private.

Early last October, Chen was found dead with an apparent self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head in a guard tower in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where his military unit was deployed at the time.

Elizabeth OuYang, president of the Organization for Chinese Americans’ New York chapter (OCA-NY), the primary advocate in the Chen case, is calling for Curtis’s expulsion from the Army — particularly since he initially faced more serious charges of negligent homicide and reckless endangerment toward Chen. Also, according to OCA-NY, Curtis has additionally been charged with maltreating Privates Justin Christianson and Benjamin Lowrey by calling them derogatory names and making them do push-ups while wearing plate carrier vests and gas masks. The Army didn’t confirm the latter charges by press time.

“The specialist does not know right from wrong. He admitted he used Danny to get out his anger,” said OuYang. “He is willing to follow orders that he knows will demean and physically hurt another soldier for no reason.”

Allowing him to remain in the Army, she continued, “puts other soldiers at risk of harm, including death.”

Council Member Margaret Chin echoed that sentiment, arguing that not dishonorably discharging soldiers such as Curtis who are guilty of hazing weakens the U.S. military.

“Collectively, the behavior of the soldiers tried in connection with Danny’s death paints a sordid picture of the state of our Army and state of mind of some of the young men who serve our country,” she said. “The Army must put an end to the intolerance and indifference to human decency…This is not a strategy that wins wars.”

Meanwhile, Sergeant Travis Carden, 25, pled guilty to hazing and maltreating Chen by calling him racially disparaging names and ordering him to do push-ups with his mouth full of water. He has also been sentenced to a reduction in rank and forfeiture of two-thirds of his salary for a month.

Referencing Carden’s rank reduction, Army spokesperson George Wright said, “While not as drastic as a three-grade reduction from specialist to private [in the case of Curtis], it reduces that soldier’s authority over other soldiers and eliminates his role as a small-unit leader.”

Carden was also involved in an altercation in Fort Bragg, North Carolina — the setting of the trials — around the time of his trial late last month. Wright said only that the unit’s leadership is working to resolve the situation.

OuYang asserted that Carden’s sentence is also too light vis-à-vis the crimes he has been charged with and contested the court’s ban on public access to the trials. According to military law, a summary court-martial such as Carden’s — the least serious of the Army’s trial types — is administrative in nature and therefore not open to the public.

Part of Carden’s punishment, she said, should be to admit how he abused Chen in front of the soldier’s family and Chinatown neighbors.

“Sergeant Carden’s altercation with the government’s witness shows he is not deterred by the military court process and its light sentences,” said OuYang. “Allowing him to remain in the Army contradicts Army values of respect, honor and integrity.”

Responding to OuYang’s complaint about public access to the summary courts-martial, Wright said, “Legal teams could agree it was in the best interest of the government and in the best interest of the defendant for the trial to take place in a speedy manner…to not tie up the resources of all the parties involved.”

The courts-martial of three other soldiers connected with Chen’s death will take place in the coming weeks. According to the Army, the trials for Staff Sergeant Andrew Van Bockel and First Lieutenant Daniel Schwartz are scheduled for early and late October, respectively. The trial date for Sergeant Jeffrey Hurst was pending as of press time on Tues., Sept. 4.

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