By Ben Fractenberg and Patrick Hedlund
MANHATTAN — The eight soldiers charged in the death of Chinatown Army Pvt. Danny Chen have been removed from duty and will face a military trial in Afghanistan, military officials said.
Chen, 19, who grew up in Chinatown and the East Village before he was deployed, was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head inside a guard tower in Kandahar Province on Oct. 3, Army investigators said.
On Wednesday, the military announced that eight soldiers from Chen’s unit had been charged with crimes ranging from negligent homicide to making false statements in his death, causing advocates to call for their swift prosecution.
The soldiers were relocated to a different operating base in southern Afghanistan once the investigation began, and will remain there under increased supervision pending trial, a military spokesman said.
Military officials previously informed Chen’s parents that superior officers had beaten him prior to his death for failing to turn off the hot water at his base.
Representatives from the Asian American advocacy group OCA-NY, which has worked closely with Chen’s family while pressing for answers from the military, said he was abused and bombarded with racially motivated taunts by his fellow officers during training in the U.S. and deployment in Afghanistan.
In one instance, Chen was dragged from his bed at his base in Kandahar Province while fellow soldiers threw rocks at him, explained OCA-NY president Elizabeth OuYang, relaying information military officials told Chen’s parents. She added that he was also forced to do chin-ups with a mouth full of liquid that he couldn’t spit out.
Chen was also taunted for his Chinese heritage during training in Georgia before his deployment, with soldiers referring to him as “Jackie Chen” in a reference to Chinese movie star Jackie Chan. They also allegedly used goat-like voices to say his name, OuYang said.
She noted that Chen also got into one fight during training, but couldn’t say whether it was a result of the alleged taunting.
Five of the soldiers charged — Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, Spc. Thomas P. Curtis and Spc. Ryan J. Offutt — face involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide charges, among others, according to the military.
Maria Van Bockel, Sgt. Van Bockel's stepmother, would not comment on the circumstances of Chen's death and the charges against her son, but said that she was in "shock" when she learned about what happened.
In addition, 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz is charged with eight counts of dereliction of duty, Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas is charged with four counts of dereliction of duty and one count of making a false statement and Sgt. Travis F. Carden is charged with two counts of maltreatment and one count of assault, the military said.
The military did not immediately offer further details regarding the charges or the status of the investigation. A military spokesman said he could not comment on specific evidence or findings that could jeopardize the judicial proceedings.
A separate Army probe of any criminal activities regarding Chen's death is ongoing, the spokesman added.