By: Peter Sessum
The first court martial for the soldiers that harassed and abused Pvt. Danny Chin which led to him taking his own life in a guard tower in Afghanistan has ended. The military system, the civilian sector’s lack of understanding of the military and even the timing of the trial will ensure that Chen and his family will never know justice.
Monday, Sgt. Adam Holcomb was found guilty of maltreatment and assault. He was found not guilty of negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, communicating a threat and hazing. Instead of getting up to 14 years in jail, he got 30 days, docked one month’s pay and a demotion to Specialist. That is all he gets for having a soldier kill himself on his watch.
One problem is the court martial process. By taking on each case one at a time the defense gets to pass the blame around and so far it has been landing on Chin. Anthony Osborne, Holcomb’s attorney agrees that Chin’s death is a tragedy, but it is not the fault of Holcomb. Each defense attorney can apply the same strategy saying that it is someone’s fault, just not THEIR client. It is playing hot potato with the blame and the one that will get stuck with it is Chen himself.
Chen is being portrayed as a screw up. In the military, corrective action can take many forms. Some are physical, others are meant to make the soldier feel stupid so they won’t repeat the action. Are a lot of them stupid? Absolutely, but the military is not an organization where everyone gets a trophy for participating. Especially in combat. Everyone has to be at their best or mistakes happen. In a combat zone, mistake can more easily be fatal.
Since the court martial panel is comprised of soldiers, many will know the dangers of having a screwed up soldier on your team. If they believe that Chen was a liability they might not be sympathetic to his plight. The trial took place at Fort Bragg, home of some of the Army’s most elite soldiers, a messed up soldier will not be in their favor.
Even the media’s misuse of the term “hazing” might have actually contributed to the perceptions of the panel into thinking that Chen was weak. In the military, hazing does not have the negative connotations. Hazing is something that was done to welcome a soldier into the unit. It is more of a practical joke than intentionally doing harm. When framed as “hazing” the panel may believe that Chen was being welcomed into the platoon rather than being singled out. Ask anyone that has ever been told to find “soft spots” in tank armor, a can of squelch for the radio or sent to supply to get Bravo Alpha eleven hundred Novembers (BA1100N, or balloons). That was hazing. It is silly, but not harmful. Some members on the panel might remember hazing when it was seen as harmless and not see a problem with the allegation.
What we need to do is make a distinction between hazing and harassment. It is the difference between consensual sex and rape. When accusing Holcomb of hazing, military members, myself included, think of harmless acts that bring a unit together, say harassment and something else comes to mind. When talking to military members, hazing and harassment are not interchangeable.
What Chen endured was not hazing. It was harassment, it was abuse, it was assault and the case could be made for torture. His tormentors, however, will not face serious charges because no one is paying attention. Or more accurately, no one cares.
Right now the national attention is caught up in the Olympics. For recent tragedies there is the shooter at the Batman movie and the Sikh temple. No one cares about a soldier suicide in Afghanistan a year ago.
Now is the time that the spotlight needs to be back on the issue, while the soldiers are finally facing trial. The only way the men will be held accountable is if attention is brought to the situation. Before the decisions sent to the general are final, we need to let him know that 30 days in exchange for a young life is not enough. But why should the general care if we don’t?