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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | East Village soldier Danny Chen’s suicide last October has contributed to the writing of legislation that would more stringently enforce anti-bullying in the armed forces.
The Service Member Anti-Hazing Act, which U.S. Congressmember Nydia Velazquez is introducing to Congress this week, would require all branches of the U.S. military to more effectively combat hazing through targeted policies and training.
The federal bill comes on the heels of 301 U.S. soldiers’ suicides last year alone and a total of 1,100 soldiers’ suicides during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, according to Velazquez.
The bill’s direct impetus, however, was the March 22 congressional hearing at which military officials revealed that the military lacks a systematic means of tracking hazing — commonly defined as persecution or harassment with meaningless, difficult or humiliating tasks.
“After listening to the answers to my own questions, I wasn’t satisfied that the Department of Defense and the military was doing enough to prevent future hazing incidents,” Velazquez said at a press conference held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association offices in Chinatown.
“We cannot bring Danny Chen back,” she said, “but we can try to find some good in this tragedy by preventing future hazing incidents, and this is exactly what we’re pursuing by introducing this legislation.”
Under the law, hazing awareness would be integrated into all soldiers’ training regimen, and each military branch would have to create and implement rules to curb the misbehavior when it occurs. The law would also require the military to collect data on the number of reported hazing incidents and profile information on the individuals involved. Military officials would also have to assess whether corrective action was taken.
The U.S. secretary of defense would report these findings to Congress on an annual basis, according to Velazquez.
The legislation also calls on each military branch to set up an anonymous hotline for soldiers victimized by hazing, so that they’re not intimidated from seeking help. The law would also enable harassed service personnel to be transferred out of their units more quickly, “so they may get out of a bad situation before a tragedy happens,” Velazquez said.
The legislation would also mandate a hazing oversight panel to review, monitor and make recommendations about the issue. The panel would comprise the secretary of defense, the heads of each branch of the military and outside stakeholders, including women’s, ethnic and minority advocacy organizations.
Finally, the law directs the defense secretary to implement a diversity training program, in which all members of the military would have to regularly participate.
Liz OuYang, executive director of OCA-NY, a lead advocate in the Chen case, sung the bill’s praises, saying hazing and the lack of accountability for it poisons America’s national security.
“It leads to divisiveness, lowers soldiers’ morale and tarnishes the U.S.’s reputation for being a protector of equality and democracy,” she said. “We know that our military can do better, and I ask with the public to work with Congresswoman Velazquez and the Army to improve these measures.”
Speaking in Chinese, Su Zhen Chen, Private Chen’s mother, said she hopes the public will support Velazquez’s legislation, “so that this never happens again to another family.”
Army officials declined to comment on the legislation.
The bill will be introduced in Congress later this week once the House formally reconvenes. Passage of national laws such as this one can take anywhere from weeks to months. A Velazquez spokesperson wouldn’t comment on the time frame for the bill’s passage other than saying that it’s a “priority” for the congresswoman.
The courts-martial of the eight soldiers purportedly involved in Chen’s death are set to begin Thurs., May 17, according to military officials. Staff Sergeant Blaine Dugas will be tried for dereliction of duty and making a false statement, among other violations of Army rules. He faces maximum punishments of eight-and-a-half years’ imprisonment, in addition to demotion of rank, forfeiture of pay and expulsion from the Army. The other soldiers’ trials have yet to be scheduled.
Meanwhile, OCA-NY has made significant headway in its card campaign commemorating Chen’s birthday, which is on May 26. The cards are due by Mon., May 14. Participants making their own cards are asked to send them to OCA-NY, P.O. Box 3233, Church St. Station Post Office, New York, N.Y. 10018.
As previously reported, OCA-NY is also organizing a cultural event set to take place on Thurs., May 24, at Pace High School, near City Hall. Featured artists will include R&B singer Taiyo, photographer Corky Lee and spoken-word artist Kris Lew, among others. For more information, contact OCA-NY Executive Director Liz OuYang at email@example.com .