FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Staff Sgt. Andrew Van Bockel, who ordered lower-ranking superiors to haze Pvt. Danny Chen, was found guilty of hazing, maltreatment, and dereliction of duty by a military jury in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Chen, a 19-year-old from New York, took his own life on Oct. 3, 2011, while stationed in Afghanistan. His family and friends, along with community groups such as OCA (Organization of Chinese Americans) New York, have been attending court-martial proceedings for eight soldiers who were implicated in the hazing.
The jury deliberated for six and a half hours on Nov. 20, and the next day he was sentenced only to a reprimand, reduction in rank two levels to an E-4, and 60 days of hard labor, of which he was credited 45 days for one month of pre-trial confinement.
Van Bockel, 27, of Aberdeen, S.D. testified he ordered Chen to low-crawl over 100 meters of rocks for failing to put on his helmet before he entered guard duty and watched while specialists lobbed rocks at him. Van Bockel called him “Dragon Lady” and “Fortune Cookie” and ordered him to give instructions in Chinese in front of the entire platoon.
Others testified that Van Bockel intentionally ordered Chen to call specialists by their first name, knowing he would be punished for that.
Van Bockel was also accused of allowing Chen to be punished for graffiti in the guard tower that he was not responsible for; and failing to prevent other superiors from using racial epithets, throwing rocks, kicking, striking and dragging Chen and forcing him to low-crawl and do pushups with a mouthful of water.
Testifying in his own defense, Van Bockel said that Chen — because he was weaker than other soldiers and would often fall asleep on guard duty or forget his needed supplies — underwent corrective training in an attempt to make him a better soldier.
On the day Chen killed himself, Van Bockel punished him for reporting to guard duty without wearing his helmet and with insufficient water. “I was so disappointed in him,” The Fayetteville Observer quoted Van Bockel as saying. “It seemed like every time Chen took a step forward, he took a step back.”
The defense also argued that Van Bockel was not aware of many of the hazing incidents.
After being convicted, Van Bockel said that despite his best efforts, he failed Chen. “I’m deeply sorry for your loss,” he told Chen’s family. “I was honored to have served with him. I shall remember him as a fellow soldier that I was proud to serve with.”
“What Staff Sgt. Van Bockel did and allowed to happen to Pvt. Chen was not corrective training, it was torture,” stated OCA-NY President Elizabeth OuYang. “He not only fostered a climate of unrelenting and escalating hazing that ultimately cost Danny his life, he instigated the hazing.
“His light sentence indicates Danny and other victims of hazing cannot get justice through the military court system and places a higher priority on protecting rank-and-file than stated Army values of respect and integrity. Had Sgt. Van Bockel done his duty to stop what he and lower-ranking superiors were doing, Danny would be alive today. This light sentence will be a major deterrent for Asian Americans to enlist in the Army.”
Van Bockel is the seventh superior to be convicted in connection with Chen’s death. Since the negligent homicide charge was dropped, the seven have been convicted of lesser offenses, including assault, racial maltreatment, hazing, and dereliction of duty.
The sentences for the other six convicted superiors include a range of multiple punishments — jail time, discharge for bad conduct, forced labor, reduction in rank, reprimand, and fines. All have been reduced at least one level, two have been discharged for bad conduct, and four have been sentenced to jail with the longest sentence being six months.
The higher-ranking officers who were aware or should have been aware of the abuse and could have stopped it have received the lightest punishment, according to OCA-NY.
Platoon Sgt. Blaine Dugas, the second-in-command, received a three-month jail sentence but did not have to serve any time because the judge found he had his gun taken away from him prior to being convicted. Sgt. Jeffrey Hurst, the team leader under Van Bockel, was sentenced to 45 days of hard labor and a reprimand.
Chen’s supporters in the courtroom included his parents, Su Zhen and Yan Tao Chen; his uncle, Zhan Qiu Chen; his aunt, Lucy Chen; Rose Eng, OCA-NY board member and travel agent; Kendall Kosai, OCA civil rights fellow (Washington, D.C.); Jason Hata, JACL-AARP Mineta fellow (Washington, D.C.); Ki Chan, financial manager; Pak Wong, Chinatown Head Start administrator; Sharon De La Cruz, visual artist; Mansee Kong and Michael Wood, independent filmmakers; Julia Chung, Vassar College senior; Crystal Chen, Wheaton College (Massachusetts); Diana Tung, non-profit project manager; Tricia Sung, president of OCA-Georgia; Alfred Yin, past president of OCA-Georgia; Woo Yi Yin, OCA-Georgia board member; Gary Guan, president of Asian American Media Group (Atlanta); and representatives of the Fayetteville Chinese Association.