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Witnesses Say Chen Wasn't Ready for Afghanistan

Pvt. Danny Chen was ill-prepared for life in Afghanistan and struggled to adjust to combat in the weeks leading up to his suicide, said several soldiers who testified at the trial of a man accused of driving Chen to take his own life.

Sgt. Adam Holcomb, 30, of Youngstown, Ohio, is accused of harassing Chen, 19, of New York, through racial slurs and physical abuse.

But his lawyers have contended that the physical tasks Chen was forced to complete in Afghanistan were related to his poor performance and not any conspiracy to punish Chen based on his Chinese heritage.

They have also suggested that Chen's parents may have disowned him and that may have played a part in his decision to shoot himself in the head during a guard shift on Oct. 3.

Several soldiers who served with Holcomb and Chen at Combat Outpost Palace testified Friday that mistakes were common for most young soldiers.

Chen, who joined his unit in Afghanistan's Kandahar province several months into their deployment, took longer to adjust than others in part because of his lack of training, his colleagues said.

Sgt. William Zade said Chen didn't really know what was going on and was shocked by his lack of training.

Spc. Nicholas Sepeda said life on Combat Outpost Palace was physically demanding because of the heat and terrain.

He said Chen could not keep up physically and so was not allowed to leave the safety of the base.

But, Sepeda also said that Chen was sometimes punished for no reason.

Sepeda said Chen was treated like dirt and said that many noncommissioned officers on Combat Outpost Palace, including Holcomb, were racists.

He described an incident that occurred just a few hours prior to Chen's suicide, in which Chen was ordered to low crawl with his helmet on while other soldiers, not including Holcomb, lobbed rocks at him while shouting "incoming."

The mistreatment of Chen was rampant across the base and well known, according to Army Criminal Investigation Command Special Agent Chris Hubbard.

Hubbard said he was involved in the preliminary CID investigation into Chen's death.

He said he investigated soldiers from Combat Outpost Palace for shooting unarmed civilians and forcing soldiers to hold live grenades as punishment, but testified that those claims were unsubstantiated.

On Friday, Holcomb's lawyers questioned the techniques of Army investigators.

They alleged that CID agents did not conduct a full investigation and said that some of their means of gathering evidence may have influenced what soldiers told them.

While many soldiers testified that Chen received corrective punishment, also known as being "smoked," several said they thought it was warranted.

Spc. Zachary Bolin, a medic at Combat Outpost Palace, said Chen's performance issues began the first day he arrived to the unit.

He also said that the racial names Chen was called by Holcomb and others were not meant to disrespect or anger him.

He described one term typically known as a racial slur as a "general term for Asian people" that he did not think was derogatory.

Holcomb's lawyers also suggested that Chen himself may not have been bothered by the nicknames, which included "Dragon Lady" and "Egg Roll."

They entered into evidence a college essay found on Chen's computer in which Chen writes that he is a racist.

Previous witnesses have testified that Chen was bothered by the name calling and constant punishment.

Staff Sgt. Richard Westenreider, a squad leader who was in Afghanistan at the same time, testified that he was concerned by Chen's treatment.

He said he tried to get Chen transferred to his squad and tried to teach him how to operate the base radios.

"I felt like he was getting controlled a lot. I thought he would be better off with me," Westenreider said.

Holcomb is the first of eight Fort Wainwright, Alaska soldiers to be court-martialed in connection with Chen's death.

All but one of the cases will be tried at Fort Bragg because the soldiers fell under the command of a Fort Bragg general in Afghanistan.

Holcomb 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.

His lawyers had asked that a military judge find him not guilty on two of the charges, including the most serious charge of negligent homicide.

But the judge, Maj. Bret Batdorff, ruled that he would leave that decision up to the 10-member jury.

The trial will resume Saturday morning at the Fort Bragg courthouse on Normandy Drive, when the defense is expected to wrap up its case.

The court-martial could continue until Monday, officials have said.

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