By Colleen Jenkins
FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - A black soldier testified at a court-martial on Wednesday that he endured racial slurs from the same U.S. Army sergeant whose hazing, according to military officials, led a Chinese-American soldier to commit suicide.
Private Marcus Merritt said he also considered killing himself to escape the verbal abuse of Sergeant Adam Holcomb, who Merritt said called him "niglet" and threatened to send him home from Afghanistan in a body bag.
"He was in my face constantly," Merritt said on the second day of Holcomb's military trial in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Holcomb, 30, is accused of hazing both Merritt and Private Danny Chen, a 19-year-old born in New York City to Chinese immigrant parents.
The sergeant faces a more serious allegation of negligent homicide in connection with Chen's death. Military prosecutors say Holcomb's physical mistreatment and racial harassment pushed Chen to kill himself by gunshot in a guard tower in southern Afghanistan last October.
Holcomb, who has pleaded not guilty, faces nearly 18 years of confinement and a dishonorable discharge if convicted of the charges against him.
Seven of Chen's other superiors from the Alaska-based 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division were also charged in the case and will be tried separately.
Holcomb's attorneys argue Chen killed himself because he was failing as an infantryman and had been disowned by his parents for joining the Army - an assertion Chen's mother and father denied from the witness stand.
The service members who testified on Wednesday described Chen as an inexperienced soldier who struggled with the heat, routines and physical demands of deployment after joining a small unit in Afghanistan in August.
NEVER MENTIONED SUICIDE
Specialist Zachary Bolin, a platoon medic, said he kept a close eye on the new, young soldier. He said Chen was quiet and shy at first, but Bolin noticed in the week before Chen's death that he talked more and started hanging out with groups of other soldiers.
"That took my guard down," Bolin said.
In late September, Bolin said Holcomb asked him to look at Chen's back. Chen said it had gotten scraped up when the sergeant dragged him across gravel after the lower-ranked soldier left a water pump on in a shower against orders.
Chen never mentioned suicide, even when Bolin specifically asked if he was considering it, the medic said. Five other soldiers said they never saw signs Chen was suicidal.
Some said he did seem to get picked on or singled out more than others for punishment. They said they heard Holcomb call Chen racially derogatory names including "dragon lady," "Jackie Chen" and "egg roll."
Several soldiers testified Chen never said whether the names bothered him, but Private 1st Class Adrian Douglas said Chen told him the references sometimes angered him. "But he felt like he couldn't really do anything about it," Douglas said.
Holcomb's attorney said on Tuesday the sergeant only used the term "dragon lady" and meant it affectionately in a military culture where nicknames are common.
Private 1st Class Joshua Morgan said he and Chen were close friends. Though Chen usually was in good spirits during their deployment, Morgan said his friend confided that his parents had disowned him.
Chen's father, Yan Tao Chen, denied on Wednesday that he and his wife had cut off contact with their only child.
He said he thought "it was a glorious thing" that his son joined the Army. "What I am most happy about is he was able to choose what he wanted to do," he added.
(Editing by David Adams and Todd Eastham)