Justice Still Not Served in Private Danny Chen's Case

A portrait of Private Danny Chen is displayed on a funeral procession vehicle during the procession on Thursday, Oct. 13, 201
A portrait of Private Danny Chen is displayed on a funeral procession vehicle during the procession on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 in New York. Chen was killed on Oct. 3 in a noncombat-related death in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jin Lee)

Can military courts deliver justice to a subordinate hazed by his superiors? Private Danny Chen was found dead in a guard tower after six weeks of physical abuse and unrelenting racial taunts by superiors. Eight superiors were charged in connection with his death, seven have been convicted so far of charges ranging from assault, maltreatment, and dereliction of duty. However, only one was discharged for bad misconduct and the most jail time received is six months. The most appalling sentence was rendered November 21, 2012 involving squad leader, Staff Sergeant (now specialist) Andrew Van Bockel. Not only did Van Bockel fail to prevent lower ranking superiors from hazing Danny, he instigated the verbal and physical abuse that escalated into a state of hopelessness for Danny.

Danny was dragged on his back over rocks, kneed in his thigh, and made to do pushups with water in his mouth and sandbags on his back. This treatment was in addition to excessive guard duty and corrective training. Staff Sergeant Van Bockel allowed Danny to be falsely accused and punished for graffiti in the guard tower. He abused his authority by ordering Danny to call superiors by their first name knowing Danny would be punished for that. Van Bockel called Danny "Dragon Lady" and "Fortune Cookie" and made Danny give instructions in Chinese to his fellow privates in front of the entire platoon. On the day Danny died, Staff Sergeant Van Bockel ordered Danny to low crawl in full gear over 100 meters of rocks while two superiors kicked and threw rocks and water bottles at him. This was punishment for Danny failing to put his helmet on before entering the guard tower. A military jury found Staff Sergeant Van Bockel guilty of hazing, maltreatment and dereliction of duty. However, the punishment meted out was merely a reprimand, reduction in rank two levels, and 60 days of hard labor of which 45 days were credited for one month of pre-trial detention. Fifteen days of hard labor for a death that could have been avoided if the squad leader simply said "stop."

These light sentences have grave ramifications for ending a culture of hazing in the military that has gone unchecked for too long. Leaders are charged with setting a climate of integrity and respect for everyone. These "slap in the wrist" sentences give no protection for lower ranking soldiers who become the pawns for entertainment by superiors at a post far removed. It provides no incentive for subordinates to come forward under fear of retaliation to report abuse, let alone young men and women to enlist in the military. Asian Americans constitute 4 percent of the army, but their suicide rate is three times that rate. They should be very troubled by the lack of punishment in these cases.

These cases highlight whether or not justice can be served by a military jury composed only of officers and not privates as well. The sentencing system allows the military judge and jury to consider a soldier's good combat history. This shields a superior with more combat duty from meaningful punishment for unlawful treatment of his subordinates. Mandatory minimums for conviction of these offenses, including discharge, must be part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. International human rights tribunals must be allowed for redress. When hazing goes unpunished, not only are subordinates at risk and the integrity of our military impugned, but unity among troops is destroyed. This broken bond affects adversely combat readiness and our country's security.