Witness: GI Talked of Suicide Days Before Death


The soldier who found Pvt. Danny Chen's body testified that the young soldier had shared suicidal thoughts days before he killed himself in Afghanistan.

Pfc. Degan Berhe was one of several soldiers to testify Thursday before military prosecutors finished their case against Sgt. Adam Holcomb, who is charged with driving Chen to suicide through a pattern of racist name-calling and harassment.

The court-martial on Fort Bragg is set to resume today with testimony from witnesses for the defense. It is expected to continue into Saturday.

Berhe was stationed with Chen and Holcomb at Combat Outpost Palace, a small base near the Pakistan border in southwest Kandahar province.

He testified that Chen, a 19-year-old from New York, complained of being picked on and harassed by a group of superiors that included Holcomb.

Berhe, who said he had observed some of the mistreatment, testified he did not think Chen posed an immediate threat to himself.

He said he didn't trust the noncommissioned officers at the base and waited to tell one who was based elsewhere about the issue. That occurred Oct. 2.

On Oct. 3, Berhe said, he found Chen sprawled on the floor of a guard tower with his rifle an arm's length away. Chen appeared to have shot himself under the chin, with the bullet exiting through his cheek.

Air Force Lt. Col. Edward Mazuchowski, the forensic pathologist who conducted Chen's autopsy, told jurors that two phrases had been written on Chen's left forearm with black ink.

While he couldn't confirm that the writing was Chen's, Mazuchowski said the phrases were, "Tell my parents I'm sorry" and "Veggie -- pull the plug."

In their cross-examination, Holcomb's lawyers appeared to try to shift the blame for Chen's death to Berhe.

Capt. Dennis Hernon said Berhe waited several days to tell anyone about Chen and never made an attempt to take Chen's weapon.

"You didn't care for your buddy, did you?" Hernon said. "You had every opportunity to help Pvt. Chen the day he told you. You had every opportunity to prevent this."

Berhe said he feared the leadership at Combat Outpost Palace would not take Chen's suicidal ideation seriously because of their treatment of Chen.

"I didn't know who I should trust," he said.

Another soldier, Pfc. Bryan Johnson, testified that Chen also told him about the harassment at Combat Outpost Palace.

Johnson met Chen in basic training and described himself as a close friend.

While he wasn't stationed at Combat Outpost Palace, Johnson said he saw Chen several times in Afghanistan and, each time, Chen's demeanor appeared to deteriorate.

The last time they saw each other was more than a week before Chen's death, Johnson said.

"It was not the Danny Chen that I knew. It was somebody that had lost all care or hope," he said.

Johnson said Chen told him about the name-calling and being punished by fellow soldiers. He testified that Chen thought he was punished more than others.

"He said he found a way to make what was happening to him at Combat Outpost Palace stop," Johnson said.

At the time, Johnson said, he thought Chen was planning to talk to someone in his chain of command. He said he now realizes Chen was talking about suicide.

Holcomb, 30, of Youngstown, Ohio, is the first of eight Fort Wainwright, Alaska, soldiers to be tried in connection with Chen's death.

He is charged with negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, communicating a threat, assault, dereliction of duty, two specifications of maltreatment of a subordinate and four specifications of violating a lawful general regulation.

Holcomb's lawyers have moved to have two of the charges -- reckless endangerment and negligent homicide -- dismissed because, they said, prosecutors failed to present adequate evidence to prove the charges.

The military judge, Maj. Bret Batdorff, said he would rule on the motions later.

If convicted of all charges, Holcomb faces 17 years and nine months in prison.

After the prosecution finished its case, Holcomb's lawyers were able to call one witness before the end of the day. That witness, Sgt. Davin Dumar, testified that Holcomb saved his life while risking his own after Dumar's leg was blown off by an improvised explosive device on a patrol in Afghanistan.

Dumar said that he observed Holcomb interact and punish soldiers, but that Holcomb wasn't racist and didn't push too hard.

He said corrective punishment was common and justified.

"If you fall asleep on guard and something happens, it's your fault," Dumar said.

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