Two more soldiers tried in Chen case, one ousted from Army

Chinatown residents, community advocates and politicians gathered at Columbus Park on a recent Saturday to protest the sentence of Sgt. Adam Holcomb. Downtown Express photo by Sam Spokony

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  Chinatown advocates voiced mixed feelings on the verdicts of two more soldiers tied to the suicide of U.S. Army Private Danny Chen.

On Aug. 17, Sergeant Blaine Dugas, 36, was found guilty of one count of dereliction of duty and sentenced to a reduction in military rank and three months of confinement. Dugas — one of eight soldiers charged in connection with Chen’s suicide at the Fort Bragg, North Carolina military base — was being tried for three counts of dereliction of duty and lying to a U.S. Army investigator when asked if he had heard about Chen’s mistreatment.

Chen, who grew up in Chinatown, is believed to have fatally shot himself in a guard tower in Kandahar, Afghanistan last October.

The judge found Dugas guilty of failing to ensure the physical well-being of Chen by improperly supervising the 19-year-old soldier’s platoon superiors when they were conducting corrective training toward him. According to the court papers, “[Dugas] negligently failed to foster a climate in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of race, as it was his duty to do so, by failing to prevent his subordinates from maltreating and engaging in racially abusive language and conduct towards Private Danny Chen.”

Dugas also pled guilty to illegal possession and consumption of alcohol.

However, since the sergeant has already served 90 days of confinement prior to the trial, he is now permitted to reenter the Army. In January, Dugas had his weapons confiscated and was removed from active duty when the military found him connected to Chen’s death.

Liz OuYang, president of the Organization of Chinese Americans’ New York Chapter (OCA-NY), expressed disappointment in Dugas’s verdict, since it doesn’t entail Dugas’s dismissal from the Army. She along with Chen’s parents, uncle and cousins have been attending the Fort Bragg trials since they began in late July.

“As the senior enlisted officer, Sergeant Dugas was in a position of power to stop the abuse and didn’t,” said OuYang. “His failure to ensure the physical well-being of Private Chen cost Danny his life. “There is no place in the Army for a staff sergeant, the highest enlisted officer, who turns a blind eye to racial abuse and hazing by superiors.”

Lower Manhattan Council Member Margaret Chin, who also decried the ruling, pointed out that Dugas’s demotion doesn’t take away his title as Sergeant.

The Army must send a strong message that superior officers will be held accountable for their actions and the actions of their subordinates, Chin continued. “By failing to do so in this case,” said the council member, “the Army has condoned racism, hazing and bullying.”

Responding to the verdict, George Wright, an Army spokesperson at the Pentagon, said “the Army respects the decision of the jury in this case.”

Chen’s parents, Lower East Side residents Su Zhen and Yan Tao Chen, weren’t available for comment following the latest verdicts.

In a sit-down interview with the Downtown Express prior to the trials, Su Zhen Chen said she didn’t know if witnessing the trials would make her feel stronger or more upset. Either way, she said through a translator, “I must go to do this for Danny.”

The Army should more stringently screen those who opt for entry into the military, Chen’s mother added. “People with criminal records and prejudices against other groups of people should not be allowed in.”

Previously, on Aug. 13, Specialist Ryan Offutt, 32, received a bad conduct discharge for hazing and maltreating Chen prior to his suicide. The soldier was also sentenced to a reduction in rank and six months of confinement.

Between Aug. 23 and Oct. 3, 2011, the day Chen killed himself, Offutt called Chen racially disparaging terms such as “dragon lady,” “Jackie Chen” and “squint eye,” according to the judge’s ruling. He also threw rocks and water bottles at Chen, kicked him on the side of his torso and dragged him along the ground by his vest.

Offutt pled guilty to bullying and maltreating Chen in exchange for the Army’s dismissal of negligent homicide and reckless endangerment charges against him.

The defense attorneys representing Offutt and the other convicted soldiers declined requests for comment.

Chin praised Offutt’s expulsion from the Army, saying that it “ensures that Spc. Offutt will never again have the opportunity to harm or harass a fellow soldier.”

“I hope this sentence sends a message to anyone who is suffering from bullying and hazing in the armed forces,” she said. “Now is the time to speak out.”

The soldiers’ verdicts comes on the heels of an impassioned rally organized by Chin, OuYang and other local advocates in opposition to the sentence of Sgt. Adam Holcomb. In July, Holcomb, who faced initial charges of negligent homicide and reckless endangerment toward Chen, was found guilty of two counts of maltreatment and one count of assault. Chin along with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have since asked the Army to conduct separation proceedings against Holcomb that could have the soldier dishonorably discharged from the military.

At the Aug. 11 demonstration in Columbus Park, more than 100 civic leaders and politicians contested Holcomb’s relatively light sentence of $1,182 forfeiture of pay and 30 days behind bars.

“We need to call for the Army to discharge Sergeant Holcomb as soon as possible,” Chin said at the rally. “He should not be in there.”

“The whole Chinese community here is angry and disappointed,” said Gary Tai, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, who has lent a room in its Mott Street office to OCA-NY for press conferences about the Danny Chen case. “We are all Americans. We should not be discriminated against. We should not be hated.”

Five additional soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division — Chen’s military unit — face charges tied to Chen’s death and will be tried by the Fort Bragg courts-martial in the coming weeks.

Additional reporting by Sam Spokony. For updates on the Danny Chen case, visit www.downtownexpress.com.