A Young Private’s Suicide Reflects a Massive Failure of Leadership

Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide in Afghanistan last year, had been abused and taunted by his superiors. Though a sergeant involved will only face 30 days in jail, more trials will probe the environment that permitted such treatment

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Private Danny Chen

Earlier this week, a military court found Sergeant Adam Holcomb not guilty of the most serious charges stemming from the suicide of Private Danny Chen last year in Afghanistan. Prosecutors argued that Holcomb mistreated the 19-year-old soldier, mentally and physically abusing him and taunting him with racial slurs, which led the young private to shoot himself with his own weapon in his outpost’s guard tower. The jury found Holcomb not guilty of negligent homicide, reckless endangerment and hazing, and found him guilty of maltreatment of a subordinate and assault consummated by battery.

The case gained national attention because the reports of Chen’s abuse by his superiors contained details about consistent racial taunts and a pattern of mistreatment against the soldier, whose parents immigrated to America from China. His death shocked many in the Chinese-American community and shined a spotlight on the treatment of Asian Americans, who make up a much smaller percentage of the force than other minorities.

(MORE: Why the U.S. Military Is Losing the War on Suicide)

The details of Chen’s short time in the Army are heartbreaking, as reported by Jennifer Gonnerman in a powerful New York magazine feature that draws on Chen’s letters, text messages and interviews with his family. According to the article, Chen suffered taunts from the very beginning of basic training for being different from everyone else in his class. Still, he made friends and told his parents he was loving the experience. Yet when he finally got to Afghanistan, he was unprepared and made mistakes that, Holcomb’s lawyers argued, made corrective training necessary.

Though the jury in Holcomb’s criminal case found him not guilty of the most serious charges, he was convicted on assault-and-battery charges stemming from an incident in which Holcomb dragged Chen across the ground because the young private had left the shower water pump on. Holcomb’s lawyer argued that his client did what was necessary to try to correct a soldier in a combat zone and didn’t have time to “babysit” an unprepared young private.

It’s not clear how much this argument swayed the jury in its verdict or the judge’s decision to sentence the sergeant to only 30 days in jail. What is clear is that the events leading to Chen’s death reveal a failure in leadership up and down the chain of command in Chen’s unit. Both of the large issues — the treatment of minority soldiers and the difficulty in dealing with an unprepared, inexperienced soldier in a combat zone — are challenges that units have faced, the latter especially during the past decade of war. The units that do well in combat are ones whose leaders are engaged, pay attention to how their subordinates are handling immense challenges and set left-and-right limits for what junior leaders can and cannot do.

Chen’s treatment didn’t occur in a vacuum; it didn’t happen in a far-flung squad left to fend for itself. It happened in a platoon and a company filled with other noncommissioned officers, who are on the ground with the troops, and the officers above them who should have seen what was going on and stopped it. In the coming weeks, six more court-martial cases related to Chen’s death will come before the court. The first will occur on Aug. 13, when other members of Chen’s chain of command will face charges related to his death. The discussion needs close scrutiny of a command climate in which something like this was allowed to happen.

In the military, whether in a combat zone, a training exercise or at home, leaders have two goals. First, accomplish the mission. Second, care for the soldiers and families under your charge. Those two aims often blend together and sometimes crash against each other, but neither one can be ignored at the other’s expense. In the next seven courts-martial, prosecutors would do well to remind the jury and the country of that distinction.