The courtroom itself wasn’t at all too special. The high paneled walls extended over our heads, six lamps curved like raindrops hung from the walls, and the spectator seats were packed with Asian Americans. There was one main difference though: there was no jury. Only a stoic judge who, in a soft but stern voice, presided over the course of Offutt vs. The United States, the second case prosecuting those who had contributed to the abuse, hazing, and finally, the suicide of Private Danny Chen who was only nineteen years old when he took his own life with his pistol while on guard duty, with the words “Tell my parents I’m sorry” hastily scribbled on his forearm.
Although the meticulously researched evidence stacked up against Specialist Ryan Offutt was beneficial for the prosecution’s argument, the tactics used in the trial were disconcerting. While the defense called upon five witnesses to testify how Specialist Ryan Offutt’s actions deviated from his character that had supposedly existed before his deployment to Afghanistan, to explain how Offutt had to pay child support for his ex-wife, and to elaborate on the less privileged background that he had grown up in, the prosecution focused mainly upon the fact that Chen’s punishments he served were abusive, excessive, and had “no real military purpose.” It was an apt summary of cruel actions which constituted as hazing, but there was no counter to the defense’s claims that Offutt had a life to lead—Private Danny Chen wasn’t even allowed to begin his life due to the actions of his superiors. The court used Danny like a prop, ignoring the human element haunting the entire trial: that a nineteen year old from Manhattan with his future clutched in his grasp had taken his own life. He was instead just another soldier, frequently bullied to the point of exhaustion by a group of men who deserved to be punished for their serious lack of leadership. But as the prosecution stated, in this specific instance Offutt had “add[ed] insult to injury” and “deserves the stigma of a dishonorable conduct discharge.”
Offutt was penalized for his crimes with six months in prison, reduction to E1 (which basically reduces his pay benefits), and a bad conduct discharge, which practically ends any hope of a future military career. In comparison Adam Holcomb, the first man sentenced for Private Danny Chen’s suicide, received only a miniscule fine of roughly one thousand dollars and a month of imprisonment for his more substantial involvement.
While this verdict might seem sufficient, it isn’t enough. It doesn’t reflect the justice that a negligent homicide deserves, but it’s an improvement from the previous trial. It represents a welcome shift in the opinions of both the courts and the media on the case, which gives me hope for the future treatment of Asian Americans in military service and beyond. I envision a world where malicious actions are treated as such, where men take an actively positive leadership role, where a Lord of the Flies-like situation in the military can be quickly and easily addressed with effect policies. But for today, we are left with the likes of Offutt, whose lack of initiative and emotional maturity led to him inflicting his rage upon a Chinese-American nineteen year old cast from home—a man barely older than a boy, lonely and out of his element in the foreign soils of Afghanistan’s most dangerous border.