FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Defense attorneys argued as an army officer's court martial opened Tuesday that a private found dead in Afghanistan killed himself amid the stress of strained family ties and not because of alleged ethnic hazing by their client.

Sgt. Adam Holcomb of Youngstown, Ohio, is the first of eight men facing prosecution in connection with last October's death of 19-year-old Pvt. Danny Chen. Holcomb faces several charges, the most serious of which is negligent homicide. If convicted on all charges, he faces nearly 18 years in prison.

Military officials have said the private shot himself last year in Afghanistan after weeks of emotional and physical abuse that constituted hazing.

But defense attorneys argued in opening statements that Chen told fellow soldiers he had been disowned for joining the military, which they attributed to the cause of his stress. Holcomb's attorneys said when trial opened that the sergeant didn't cause Chen's death.

"There's one and only one person responsible for the death of private Chen," said defense attorney, Capt. Dennis Hernon. "That person is Danny Chen."

Chen's relationship with his family was a focal point Tuesday as 10 jurors looked on amid questioning of the man's mother, the opening witness.

Su Zhen Chen testified Tuesday that she had had a good relationship with her son and kept in touch with him during his deployment. She said claims of strained family relations were untrue.

"He's my only son," Chen said in between sobs. "Why would I disown my only son?"

Prosecutors argued that Holcomb had a history of using hate speech and allegedly dragged Chen across rocky ground at one point in Afghanistan.

For months, beginning in training, soldiers in his platoon peppered him with racial insults such as "Jackie Chen" and "Dragon Lady," his family has told authorities. On the day he died, they say he was forced to crawl about 100 yards across gravel carrying his equipment while his fellow soldiers threw rocks at him.

Chen had been deployed for two months when he was found dead in a guardhouse. Attorneys said Tuesday he shot himself in the head.

Hernon argued for the defense that Chen was an incompetent soldier, and that Chen's superior officers took appropriate corrective actions. He also said Holcomb called Chen "Dragon Lady," but argued that the nickname was meant "affectionately."

Besides Holcomb, four other soldiers are also charged with negligent homicide. The judge's decision in Holcomb's case could be an indicator for the other soldiers.

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.

The trial has attracted international attention, including coverage by a group of reporters from China who watched Tuesday's proceeding.

Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a nonprofit advocacy group that worked with the Chen family, accompanied the family to the court martial. She said some people in China see the trial as an indicator for how the U.S. military treats Chinese.

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  • Danny Chen

  • Pvt. Danny Chen Memorial

    FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 file photo, Sgt. 1st Class Bobby Gates straightens the combat boots on the display before the memorial service for Pvt. Danny Chen of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment at the Southern Lights Chapel on Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. An American soldier charged with abuse that led to the suicide of a 19-year-old fellow soldier in Afghanistan is facing a preliminary hearing Sunday on a base in the country, the military said. Spc. Ryan J. Offutt is charged with offenses including maltreatment, involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide in the death of Pvt. Danny Chen, the military statement said. Offutt is one of eight infantrymen charged in connection with the suicide.(AP Photo / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Eric Engman, File) MAGS OUT

  • Pvt. Danny Chen Memorial

    FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 file photo, Sgt. 1st Class Bobby Gates straightens the combat boots on the display before the memorial service for Pvt. Danny Chen of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment at the Southern Lights Chapel on Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. An American soldier charged with abuse that led to the suicide of a 19-year-old fellow soldier in Afghanistan is facing a preliminary hearing Sunday on a base in the country, the military said. Spc. Ryan J. Offutt is charged with offenses including maltreatment, involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide in the death of Pvt. Danny Chen, the military statement said. Offutt is one of eight infantrymen charged in connection with the suicide.(AP Photo / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Eric Engman, File) MAGS OUT

  • Yan Tao Chen, third from left, waits for his wife Su Zhen Chen, center, as she is assisted following a news conference on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012 in New York. The Chen's provided an update on a Pentagon investigation into the death of their some Danny Chen, an Army private who committed suicide after allegedly being mistreated by his comrades in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, weeps as she speaks about the death of Pvt. Danny Chen during a news conference on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012 in New York. An update was provided on a Pentagon investigation into the death of Chen, an Army private who committed suicide after allegedly being mistreated by his comrades in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • Yan Tao Chen, the father of Pvt. Danny Chen, listens during a news conference on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012 in New York. An update was provided on a Pentagon investigation into the death of Danny Chen, an Army private who committed suicide after allegedly being mistreated by his comrades in Afghanistan. In background is a portrait of the founder of Asia's first republic in China, Sun Yat-sen. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • Su Zhen Chen

    Su Zhen Chen, mother of Pvt. Danny Chen, weeps while speaking during a news conference in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. Chen was found on Oct. 3 in a guard tower in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, with what the Army has described as "an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound." Eight American soldiers have been charged in Chen's death, the Army said Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

  • Elizabeth OuYang, Yan Tao Chen, Su Zhen Chen

    Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, center, speaks at a news conference while the parents of Pvt. Danny Chen, Yan Tao Chen, left, and Su Zhen Chen listen in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. Eight U.S. soldiers have been charged over the October death of Chen who apparently shot himself in Afghanistan, the Army said Wednesday, and supporters said the 19-year-old had been taunted with racial insults. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

  • FILE - In a Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 file photo, Pvt. Danny Chen's casket is carried into a hearse by soldiers during his funeral procession in New York. Chen was killed on Oct. 3 in a noncombat-related death in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army says eight American soldiers have been charged in connection with the Oct. 3 death of Chen. In a statement, the military said the eight soldiers from Chen's company faced charges ranging from dereliction of duty, assault, negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter. Chen was found in a guard tower in Kandahar province with what the Army described at the time as "an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound." He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Wainwright, Alaska. (AP Photo/Jin Lee, File)

  • FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2011 file photo, soldiers carry the casket of Pvt. Danny Chen, 19, during his funeral procession in New York's Chinatown neighborhood. Chen was found on Oct. 3 in a guard tower in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, with what the Army has described as "an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound." Eight American soldiers have been charged in Chen's death, the Army said Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Jin Lee, File)

  • FILE - In a Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 file photo, a portrait of Pvt. Danny Chen is displayed on a vehicle during his funeral procession in New York. Chen was killed on Oct. 3 in a noncombat-related death in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army says eight American soldiers have been charged in connection with the Oct. 3 death of Chen. In a statement, the military said the eight soldiers from Chen's company faced charges ranging from dereliction of duty, assault, negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter. Chen was found in a guard tower in Kandahar province with what the Army described at the time as "an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound." He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Wainwright, Alaska. (AP Photo/Jin Lee, File)

  • Pvt. Danny Chen's relatives mourn during his funeral 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)

  • Private Danny Chen's casket is carried by soldiers during his funeral 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)

  • 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)