12/21/2011 04:58 EST | Updated 02/20/2012 05:12 EST

US troops who relieved Canadians in Afghanistan face charges in soldier's death

OTTAWA - Zangabad was the kind of place that used to send shivers down the spines of Canadian troops, a boiling cauldron of never-ending roadside bombs, booby traps and ambushes that drove even the best right up to the edge.

American soldiers stepped into that breach, 45 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city, six months ago and now eight of them stand accused of contributing to the death of one of their own at a hard-scrabble combat outpost ironically nicknamed The Palace by soldiers of the Royal 22e Regiment.

The controversy has opened a window on the war left behind by the Canadian withdrawal.

Pte. Danny Chen, 19, an infantryman with the C Company of the 3rd Battalion, 21st U.S. Infantry Regiment, apparently committed suicide on Oct. 3 in one of the plywood and sandbag guard towers — an alleged victim of bullying and abuse, according to reports in the U.S. media.

Eight of his platoon mates were charged with counts ranging from dereliction of duty to making a false statement to assault, negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.

It is unclear whether the U.S. military believes the soldiers killed Chen — or whether they drove him to suicide.

Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, Spc. Thomas P. Curtis, Spc. Ryan J. Offutt and Sgt. Travis F. Carden were all charged, according to a news release issued by NATO's southern Afghanistan command.

The American unit, known as the Arctic Wolves out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska, relieved the last Canadian battle group in Kandahar and have seen almost continuous combat since.

Thomas Johnson, an expert on the Afghan war at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, said the Taliban have fought furiously to retake the Horn of Panjwaii since the Canadian withdrawal.

"I can't comment on the specifics of the case," he said in an interview from Monterey, Calf.

"(But) I can say it is a very important area for the Taliban. That's where they had their shadow court system and major elements of their shadow government for the south. After we took some of that out about a year ago, they were waiting to come back with a vengeance."

Johnson, who advised the Canadian military during its combat mission, said American troops have faced repeated attacks as they tried to consolidate the Afghan government's tenuous grip on the restive Panjwaii district.

"Especially ... Zangabad and the horn in general, that is an area of committed Taliban fighters, committed jihadists and these guys are not going to give up easily."

The entire 1st Battalion has suffered at least seven combat deaths and soldiers of C Company have taken a series of casualties, including two badly wounded men in Chen's platoon.

NATO sources, who were not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed Chen was among the replacements sent to 3-21 Infantry following weeks of hard fighting in the summer. He apparently had a tough time fitting in and being accepted by the combat veterans.

The stress of long combat tours is enormous and soldiers taking their own lives is not uncommon. The last two Canadian casualties of the combat mission were both suspected suicides, including one at the main forward operating base in Zangabad.

After last summer's pullout, the U.S. replaced entire Canadian companies of 150 men each with platoons ranging up to 45 soldiers, said Johnson.

In military-speak the concentration of troops is called a "footprint" and Johnson said an insufficient footprint meant the Taliban were bound to come back.

His assessment was challenged by counter-insurgency warfare expert Thomas X. Hammes, a retired marine colonel, who said the makeup of the local villages and their tribal affiliation has more to do with conditions than the number of troops.

The Horn of Panjwaii and Zangabad itself — a tight knot of 19 tiny hamlets — were fought over continuously by the Canadians. Defence experts on this side of the border weren't surprised the Americans have had a tough fight.

A Chinese-American activist has pushed for an investigation into Chen's death, saying the soldiers who either killed him or drove to him to suicide need to be held accountable.