Commentary: Army breaks silence on suicide by bullying
The U.S. Army seems determined to get it right this time.
Instead of lying, as the brass did in the 2004 death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, the military owned up to the awful truth that a 19-year-old private, Danny Chen, died at the hands of his fellow soldiers. Unlike the celebrated professional football player, Chen didn’t fall in a hail of friendly fire in a raid gone horribly wrong but, according to the Army, alone in a guard tower in Kandahar Province from a single bullet to the head.
In Tillman’s case, a fantasy was crafted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the White House to make him a hero, at least until they got through his televised memorial service. Their mistake was to assume that Tillman’s family would stand for the lie. They didn’t. They fought until the truth came out.
Chen’s parents, however, don’t have the resources of the Tillmans. Neither speaks English, and both work in New York’s Chinatown, his mother as a seamstress, his father as a cook. They’ve relied on a neighborhood community organization to help them deal with the death of their only child.
Their modest circumstances make it all the more noteworthy that the Defense Department didn’t try to whitewash the tragedy. Within three months of the death of the Chens’ only child, the Army came back with charges, including manslaughter and negligent homicide, against eight soldiers in his unit.
Pelted with rocks
What the family has learned so far is chilling: Hours before Chen’s death, his comrades in arms, who’d presumably protect him to the death in a foxhole, instead dragged him out of bed, forced him to crawl on the ground as they pelted him with rocks and made him do pull-ups while holding water in his mouth. All this, his tormentors say, because Chen had failed to turn off the heater in the shower.
Yet the Chens are shocked by the Army’s initial conclusion that their son took his own life. Although in letters home he complained that he’d run out of ways to deal with the ridicule — there are few Asians in the military, and he was frequently taunted — he didn’t seem depressed.
The Army should be commended for not stonewalling. Yet how is it possible that Chen could have been so abused without anyone in authority knowing of his torment, in a place where military discipline is enforced and where eyes are open 24/7?
I understand the silence. My brother, who suffered seizures at birth that left him brain-damaged, was fair game in the neighborhood. He couldn’t read, write, get a joke or learn how to grip a bat. Many times, I would fight the kids who picked on him and insist he be selected for a team. Other times, I wanted to be part of the group and abandoned him. He would stand around kicking holes in the dirt until it was time to go home. I never told my mother. Neither did he.
We were both too ashamed, so it’s not such a surprise that bullying goes unreported. Yet the military knows there are terrible psychological problems ravaging the ranks. The high suicide rate is one indication. According to a report from the Center for a New American Security, a member of the armed forces committed suicide every 36 hours between 2005 and 2010; the report released in October shows that there were a record 33 suicides of active and reserve personnel serving in the Army in July of this year.
No one can ever know what pushes someone over the line, but bullying, said Eugene Fidell, the former president of the National Institute of Military Justice, is a recurring problem, especially in a closed environment filled with the young and vulnerable. “Can I imagine somebody being bullied in the military to the point of taking his or her own life? Yes,” Fidell said.
At a news conference Dec. 21, Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said there is a zero-tolerance policy toward what he euphemistically called hazing. Nonetheless, he recognized that it “occasionally occurred.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the issue has his “personal attention” and ordered military commanders to review anti-bullying policies.
In 2010, two Army sergeants were imprisoned for three to six months and one other was given a reduction in pay after a private, Keiffer Wilhelm, killed himself 10 days after arriving in Iraq. His family said he was forced to run for miles with rocks in his pockets. In October, several Marines were court-martialed for the death of an Asian-American who killed himself in April after what prosecutors called hazing.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said Chen’s death is a symptom of a larger problem and last week she called on the Defense Department to conduct a systemwide review of hazing.
As they should. It’s hard to know what’s more senseless, the killing of Tillman by friendly fire or the killing of Chen by unfriendly fire.
One of the eight soldiers charged in Chen’s death is an officer, First Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz. So far, he’s been charged only with dereliction of duty, even though he was the one who could have stopped Chen’s ordeal.
Had one of the kids’ parents been in the park and joined in the abuse of my brother, that wouldn’t be called dereliction of duty. It would be called criminal.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.