WASHINGTON – The plea for congressional hearings on the military's efforts to prevent hazing was highly personal for one lawmaker.
Rep. Judy Chu's nephew killed himself in Afghanistan last year after hours of beatings, repeated pushups and mouthfuls of sand. Three Marines allegedly punished 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Harry Lew after he was caught sleeping on duty.
Standing with her colleagues Thursday, the California congresswoman talked about her nephew and pressed for answers from the Pentagon on whether stopping hazing in the ranks is a top priority. She also listened as Lew's mother, through an audio conference, read a brief statement.
"Harry's death left a hole in our hearts," said Sandy Lew.
The lawmakers sent a letter last week to the House Armed Services Committee seeking hearings. The Democrat also said she reached out to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"This is a call for justice," Chu said. "Too many patriotic young people, who only want to serve our country, are being harmed."
The Capitol Hill news conference came just days after a judge in a special court-martial case in Hawaii ruled that one of the three Marines should spend 30 days in jail and have his rank reduced from lance corporal to private first class. The judge, Navy Capt. Carrie Stephens, said she found no evidence that Lance Cpl. Jacob Jacoby's abuse of Lew led to his suicide.
Jacoby, who pleaded guilty to assault, acknowledged that he punched and kicked Lew out of anger and frustration that the Marine from Santa Clara, Calif., repeatedly fell asleep while on duty.
Chu called the ruling "a slap in the face."
"Jacoby gets to advance his career in the military and Harry is dead," she said.
Two other Marines also are accused of hazing Lew before he shot himself in a fox hole. Sgt. Benjamin Johns and Lance Cpl. Carlos Orozco III will have their own separate courts-martial later.
Joining Chu was Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, who said the issue is a "cultural problem within the military and it needs to be examined."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has condemned hazing as intolerable in the military, saying it undermines the service's values, tarnishes its reputation and "erodes the trust that bonds us." But he said such problems appear to be isolated incidents.
The cases of Lew and Pvt. Danny Chen have called attention to hazing. Eight soldiers were charged in the death of 19-year-old Chen, who shot himself on Oct. 3 after what investigators say were weeks of physical abuse, humiliation and racial slurs against the native New Yorker for Chinese descent.
Last month, the military said an investigative hearing had recommended that Spc. Ryan Offutt be court-martialed over hazing that allegedly led to Chen's suicide in Afghanistan, but it dismissed the most serious charge against him.
The soldiers face charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to dereliction of duty in the death of Chen.
At a congressional hearing last summer on suicide prevention programs in the military, Chu talked about her nephew, an event that received a great deal of attention.
She said Thursday that after Lew's death she received letters from families who described instances of hazing and "feelings of helplessness."
"Nothing will change unless the people at the top say this is a problem," she said.