MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time to go behind closed doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about difficult issues that are often kept hidden.
And in this election season we've been hearing a lot about why candidates take on the issues they've chosen to address. Sometimes it's because an issue is popular, but sometimes it's just too important to ignore, and sometimes it's also personal.
The issue of hazing in the military is an issue like that for California Congresswoman Judy Chu. She's written about and spoken out about the case of Army Private Danny Chen. He was a young soldier who died in Afghanistan in 2011. He killed himself after what prosecutors say was a persistent campaign of hazing by his fellow soldiers that reportedly included the use of racist slurs, some of which we may hear in the course of this discussion.
Chu's own family experienced a similar tragedy when her nephew, Marine Lance Corporal Harry Lew, also took his own life after reportedly enduring hazing from fellow Marines. Congresswoman Chu has made addressing this one of her top priorities and she's with us now to tell us more about her work.
And Congresswoman Judy Chu, thank you so much for joining us and I do have to say I'm so sorry for this loss in your family.
REPRESENTATIVE JUDY CHU: Thank you for having me here and for giving me the opportunity to talk about it.
MARTIN: And I know this is difficult, but do you mind just telling us a few words about your nephew, what made him want to join the Marines. Why was he interested in military service?
CHU: My nephew was fascinated by the Marines. He had a deep desire to join them and to be part of their culture, so he did indeed volunteer to go into the Marines. He was in his second year in Afghanistan, but then that night occurred on April 3rd last year. That was when he was hazed for over three hours by two of his fellow soldiers because he fell asleep on duty. At the urging of their sergeant, who told them that peers should correct peers, they punched and kicked him. They poured the contents of a full sandbag onto his face, causing him to choke and cough as it filled his nose and mouth, and 22 minutes after the hazing stopped, he used his gun to commit suicide in a foxhole that they had forced him to dig.
MARTIN: It's just awful. It's just an awful, awful story. And then what happened to the perpetrators? It was known who had been involved in this, right? So what happened to them?
CHU: The facts of this case are not in dispute at all. Everybody knows exactly what happened. The question is whether the Marines found these to be offense-able actions, and what was even worse was when we went to the military trial and found that one lance corporal received just one month in jail and the other two Marines were found not guilty.
MARTIN: This terrible story involving your nephew - that's one thing, but then the issue came back again when a young man, a private named Danny Chen, who also took his own life after he had been taunted physically and verbally for some six weeks - this was punishment after he had also fallen asleep on guard duty - this happened just months after this happened with your nephew. What went through your mind when you heard that story?
CHU: I was absolutely stunned when I saw what happened to Danny Chen. It was a repeat of what happened to Harry, but it was even worse because it went on for six weeks and it was done by six of his fellow soldiers who were indeed superiors, but who all conspired to commit these heinous acts of hazing. They called him Dragon Lady, gook and chink. They dragged him across gravel until his back bled. They threw rocks at him to simulate artillery. It just did not let up until finally he also shot himself.
MARTIN: And what happened in that case?
CHU: The trials are going on right now. I was compelled to write an op-ed in the New York Times after the first perpetrator was found guilty, but only receiving a sentence of 30 days in jail and he was fined $1,000. I felt that that was just outrageous and I had a tremendous flashback to what happened to Harry.
MARTIN: Congresswoman, you know, it's an awkward - it's a difficult question, but I have to ask if you think ethnicity is a part of this. Your nephew and Danny Chen were both Asian-American. You know, you've taken this issue on. You've done a lot of research of your own in this issue and in looking at it. Do you think that their ethnicity played some role in their being treated this way? To the degree that it affects other people, do you think Asians are singled out? I have to ask.
CHU: Well, since Harry's death, I've found many more cases of soldiers who've been victims of hazing and then took their own lives, and I found that race is indeed one of the factors that causes hazing. However, it is one of many factors. Sometimes it has to do with sexual orientation. Sometimes smaller physical size. Sometimes it has to do with what is perceived as poor performance or maybe one who is perceived as being overweight, and, of course, we know that there are many cases of women being victimized and assaulted in the military.
MARTIN: You know, it's worth mentioning that in addition to being a congresswoman, a member of Congress, you're also a psychologist, and I just wonder whether your background gives you any insights into why you think this is occurring.
CHU: It's occurring because soldiers are not taught the difference between corrective training and abuse. The culture of the military says that anything goes with regard to what they call corrective training - that is doing something to make soldiers fall in line. But if you are not telling them what the line is between corrective training and abuse, then these things will happen - very, very tragic situations will happen such as this.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Democratic congresswoman Judy Chu. She represents the 32nd district of California. But now, we're talking about legislation she's introduced in general - the whole issue of hazing in the military. She lost her nephew, who took his own life after a hazing incident. We're also talking about Private Danny Chin, a case that's gotten a lot of public attention after he took his own life after having been hazed for weeks by his superiors while serving in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan.
You know, I think people, when they think about this issue, I think they do, you raised the whole question of, you know, women. I think people do remember certain hazing incidents that have gotten a lot of attention in the past. But you can also see a scenario where military people, people with military background might say that hazing is part of the process of toughening people up. That this is a, this is one of the most difficult jobs that you're going to have and that services members have to be ready for combat. And that this is an informal way for weaker people to be toughened up and weeded out if need be. And I'd like to ask if you've heard that argument and if so, how do you respond to it?
CHU: I definitely have heard that. Corrective training is supposed to help a soldier to improve; it is supposed to have timelines and targets. But corrective training as punishment is supposed to be strictly prohibited. We do take the vulnerabilities of soldiers into mind. I mean, after all, our young people make such great sacrifices when they go off to war and they are in very, very dangerous situations. We take seriously the fact that the lives of our soldiers can be at risk. But the question is: how far do you go with this corrective training? Do you have to abuse and torture other fellow soldiers to the point of death? And I have to say definitively the answer is no.
MARTIN: You've introduced legislation titled The Harry Lew Military Hazing Accountability and Prevention Act. It would make military hazing a crime. I'm surprised that it isn't, actually. Could you talk a little bit more about that and tell us what else the act would require the Defense Department to do?
CHU: The military prohibits hazing but it doesn't have it in the military code. And when we had our congressional hearing on this, the military top brass said, yes, it would make a big difference to have hazing actually in the military code as a crime and then they could take more immediate actions on it.
MARTIN: I still want to press the question, and I know I already asked it, but I want to ask again about why this persists. I mean, another issue that has surfaced recently and been much more discussed than it had been is the whole question of sexual assault of female service members. Now, you know, I don't think that anybody thinks that rape is correct. I mean, I can't, I mean I don't know who would justify this. Right? There's no saying, well, this is part of the training or anything of that sort. I don't hear anybody say that. And yet it persists. And we've heard a lot of examples where the leaders - both civilian and military leaders and uniformed leaders - tell us that they are making aggressive efforts to stamp this out and yet, it persists. And so I wonder, given that there seems to be a kind of a cultural acceptance of this, whether you really feel that you can change this.
CHU: In public statements, the military's top brass condemns hazing as well as rape. However, in action there appears to be no consequence for doing these things. In fact, when you get into the whole system of military justice, many times the perpetrators are let off or they aren't even brought to trial. As in the case of rape, sometimes the victim is the one who is actually blamed for what happened.
MARTIN: You know, it used to be the case that most men within the time of the war would have some familiarity of military service and many women did. But now with our all-volunteer military, increasingly, the military is its own culture and you either are familiar with it or you're not. It is a very distinctive workforce. It involves training and doing things that most of us don't have to do. It involves a lot of discomfort. It involves a lot of what people would consider physical abuse. I mean, things that are normal in that workplace would not be normal in yours and mine. I mean, for example, just in terms of, you know, basic training. I mean, there's the famous, you know, drill sergeant yelling and correcting and doing all these things.
You know, you and I don't do that at work. Where is the line? And forgive me if, I hope, I don't mean for my question to be painful, but I would like to ask, where is the line and how are people supposed to know what that line is?
CHU: You ask a really important question and the military doesn't answer this question at all or even recognize this as a question that needs to be answered at this point. But there has to be a line. After all, do you rape and assault people? Do you drag them across gravel? Do you throw rocks at them until they bleed? Is that appropriate? I would say definitively the answer is no. On the other hand, you do have to have some kind of corrective training. It is true because not everybody is going to be equals as soldiers, so there has to be responsibility, especially in the part of the superiors to be able to determine what that line is. When somebody has crossed that line, that superior has to say something about it.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, how is your family doing? And how is Private Chen's family doing?
CHU: Well, I can certainly empathize with Private Chen's family because they are still in the middle of their trials. There are actually three more soldiers that have to go through their trials. And I remember how emotionally draining it was to go through this.
My family was stunned by what happened. They could not believe that these persons could be let off and that they can actually have a celebration about them being completely freed on this issue, which we saw in their Facebook. It is unbelievable and that's why we have to change this military culture.
MARTIN: Well, I do have to ask if you feel confident that you can effect change here? I mean, obviously I assume that's why you are in public service, is to effect change. But do you really feel that you can?
CHU: Well, I am continuing to raise my voice on this issue, and by raising my voice I hope to create greater awareness on this. Fortunately, people are responding from around the nation and are looking at this whole issue differently. Our military just does not have to abuse its own in order to be strong. We want to have the most capable and most advanced armed forces in the world. But as long as the military allows young people that we sent to war to be hazed by their fellow soldiers without consequence, we won't have a strong military. So the military has to make it clear that hazing is absolutely unacceptable and that the perpetrators will be severely punished. We have to protect those who protect us.
MARTIN: Judy Chu is a Democrat. She represents a 32nd District of California, and we caught up with her at NPR West in Culver City, California.
Congresswoman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CHU: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.