Staff Sgt. in Chen Suicide Case Busted, Jailed

Pvt. Danny Chen

A military jury reduced Staff Sgt. Andrew J. VanBockel's rank to specialist, reprimanded him and sentenced him to 60 days of hard labor for his role in the hazing of Pvt. Danny Chen.

VanBockel, 27, was convicted Tuesday night of hazing Chen, a soldier who committed suicide while under his command in Afghanistan last year. He also was convicted of being derelict in duty by allowing Chen to be hazed by others, and of maltreating Chen by calling him by racially disparaging names and forcing him to speak Chinese instead of English.

Chen, 19, of New York, killed himself in a guard tower at Combat Outpost Palace in southern Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2011.

The judge ruled VanBockel should be given credit for his confinement, which translates into 45 days of hard labor. That means VanBockel would have to do 15 of the 60 days of hard labor.

VanBockel, of Aberdeen, S.D., was one of eight soldiers charged in Chen's death and the seventh to be court-martialed.

Jurors began deliberating his sentence around 9 a.m. and returned with a sentence after 11 a.m.

VanBockel hugged his family and shook hands with his lawyers after the sentence was read.

Members of Chen's family were in the courtroom, as well. A member of an Asian-American activist group who has been monitoring the courts-martial called the sentence a disgrace.

Defense lawyers asked jurors to consider imposing no punishment. They said the conviction itself was enough punishment for VanBockel.

Prosecutors argued for the maximum punishment: four years, nine months in prison, forfeiture of pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge.

At a minimum, prosecutors said, VanBockel should face two years in prison, a forfeiture of pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge.

Jurors Tuesday convicted VanBockel of most specifications with which he was charged, but found him not guilty of maltreating Chen by forcing him to low crawl and by tying sandbags to his arms.

Speaking to jurors after he was convicted, VanBockel said he experienced the best and worst points of his life during his Army career, but said he did not regret enlisting.

VanBockel thanked the court and his family and apologized to the family of Chen.

"I'm deeply sorry for your loss," he said. "I was honored to have served with him. I shall remember him as a fellow soldier that I was proud to serve with."

Officials have said Chen was driven to suicide by the harassment and torment of his fellow soldiers on Combat Outpost Palace, where VanBockel served as Chen's squad leader.

Prosecutors alleged that VanBockel failed to prevent the ill treatment of the young private, who arrived in Afghanistan shortly after completing basic training.

Maj. Joshua Toman said Chen, as the lowest ranking soldier on the outpost, had no recourse and instead had to take the treatment in hopes that he would become part of the team.

Toman said Chen was subjected to mistreatment because he was new and quickly became a favorite target of a select group of soldiers, including several noncommissioned officers.

VanBockel's civilian lawyer, Colby C. Vokey, argued that prosecutors had cherry-picked a handful of instances, many of which VanBockel was not aware of, and were disregarding the bigger picture.

He said VanBockel cared about his soldiers, including Chen, and defended the use of some of the racial nicknames as a way for infantry soldiers to bond in a part of Afghanistan where they came under constant attack.

The eight soldiers who faced charges in the case are from the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The proceedings are at Fort Bragg because the unit was attached in Afghanistan to the 82nd Airborne Division.

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