NEW YORK — Chinese-Americans decrying the suicide of a teenage Army private they say was hazed because of his ethnicity left Monday for the court martial of the first of eight U.S. soldiers accused of pushing him to the edge.
Dozens of supporters of Danny Chen's family held a news conference on Monday before some boarded a van for the 10-hour trip to North Carolina, where the trial starts at Fort Bragg on Tuesday.
The supporters first gathered in Columbus Park, in the middle of Manhattan's Chinatown, surrounded by longtime neighborhood residents. The group included community members, elected officials, a Vietnam War veteran and filmmakers making a documentary on the case. A sign held by one supporter read: "We are all Danny Chen."
Chen's parents and other relatives left for North Carolina on Sunday.
Wellington Chen, executive director of the development group Chinatown Partnership and no relation to the soldier's family, said the verdict "will have profound implications, not only for our ethnic group but for all Americans who expect their government to give them both freedom and protection."
Danny Chen's suicide over what military officials said was extreme physical and emotional abuse, in addition to nearly one suicide a day among America's troops, "means that there is something wrong with the system," Wellington Chen said.
Military officials have said the 19-year-old soldier shot himself on Oct. 3 in a guardhouse in Afghanistan after weeks of abuse at the hands of fellow soldiers. For months, beginning during training, soldiers in his platoon peppered him with racial insults such as "Jackie Chen" and "Dragon Lady," his family said.
On the day he died, Chen was forced to crawl across gravel carrying his equipment while his fellow soldiers pelted him with rocks, according to his family, with whom he shared details of his ordeal.
According to court documents, Chen was kicked, was dragged from his tent and had sandbags tied to his arms. He wrote about the abuse in his journal.
Vassar College student Julia Chung said that when she first heard about his suicide, "I was really, really angry." But then she decided to go into action, joining others who signed petitions, staged protest marches and contacted military officials to push for justice on America soil.
Eight soldiers are facing charges ranging from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter in connection to Chen's death. They're from Maryland; Port Arthur, Texas; Aberdeen, S.D.; Youngstown, Ohio; Brooklyn, Iowa; Hendersonville, Tenn.; Greenville, Pa.; and Fowler, Ind.
Sgt. Adam Holcomb, of Youngstown, is the first to go on trial. He faces a negligent homicide charge, which carries a maximum prison sentence of three years, and a host of other charges. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to about 18 years in prison.
Four other men are charged with negligent homicide, and the judge's decision in Holcomb's trial could be an indicator for them. Holcomb's military defense attorneys were on route from Afghanistan and could not be reached for comment.
Chen was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, but was under the command of a Fort Bragg general in Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. James Huggins requested the trial be transferred to Fort Bragg, which military officials said worked out better logistically. Chen's family also lobbied for the trials to be held stateside.
Chen was born and raised in Manhattan's Chinatown, where teachers from his Head Start program showed up for Monday's gathering. He enlisted after high school and had been in Afghanistan for two months when he shot himself.
His family recently celebrated his life on what would have been his 20th birthday.
Army green T-shirts worn by many at the news conference bore the words: "Pvt. D. Chen, All-American Soldier for Life, 1992-2011."
His uncle Zhan Qiu Chen, who was on the van that left Monday, said he and members of the support group "strongly urge the Army to change the culture and the Army's image so we as parents feel comfortable sending our children to serve in the Army to protect our country."
Associated Press writer Allen Reed in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.