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Navy offers mother of dead seaman long overdue apology

2018/08/06 16:42:51

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

Twenty-three years is a long time to wait for an answer and it is especially painful for a mother who has spent that time searching for the truth behind the death of her son while serving in the the ROC Navy in 1995.

Even though the death of Huang Kuo-chang (黃國章) remains shrouded in mystery, on Aug. 4, Chen Pi-e (陳碧娥) finally received the apology she had wanted for 23 years.

The apology was made by Commander of the Republic of China (ROC) Navy Admiral Huang Shu-kuang (黃曙光) over the death of Chen's son which it has long been suspected was due to bullying, even though the Navy to this day has never officially accepted that assertion.

"Mrs. Chen has suffered through the pain of personal loss for the past 23 years, and the Navy owes her an apology," Huang Shu-kuang said. He also stressed that the apology is not a substitute for justice and the search for the truth about the young seaman's death will continue.

Accepting the apology from admiral Huang, the first ROC Navy head to apologize since her son's death in June 1995, Chen said she chose to do so after finally meeting a senior military officer willing to accept responsibility for the past errors of the military.

However, accepting the apology in no way changes her determination to discover the truth of her son's death.

"I am still searching for it," Chen said.

One of her many supporters is film director Isaac Wang (汪怡昕), who made a documentary based on Chen's story.

Titled "The Private's Mom" (少了一個之後-孤軍), the movie premiered on Aug. 4 at the Taiwan International Human Rights Film Festival in Taipei, with Chen and Admiral Huang in attendance.

During the premier, Chen kept an empty seat besides her for her son, who in her mind is forever 19. "I am sure he was watching the documentary with me."

Death at sea

The quest for justice began 23 years ago when Chen received a phone call from the Navy saying her son was missing on June 9, 1995.

Huang was a conscript serving on a Nan-Yang destroyer. Chen said he was subject to bullying during his compulsory military service and complained to her he had been threatened by senior officers while serving on the naval vessel.

As a protective mother who worried about her son, Chen sought out Huang's superior officer on the vessel who confirmed he was bullied.

The superior promised to take care of the matter. However, shortly after the vessel put to sea on June 9, Chen received the telephone call saying her son was missing.

The Navy claimed that Huang committed suicide by jumping overboard, being unable to handle the pressure and hardship of service aboard the vessel, despite the fact that no suicide note was found, Chen said.

Six days later, Huang's body was discovered by a Chinese fishing vessel along the coast of China's Fujian Province. His body had already been cremated when she arrived in to claim his remains.

Photographs taken by the Chinese authorities revealed that Huang's body showed signs of external trauma and a large nail was found in his head, evidence which strongly suggested Huang had been murdered, Chen said.

"For a long time, I have been asking the military to investigate Huang's death, but years passed and I never received an answer on whether he was killed or committed suicide," she said.

No help from lawmakers, civilian groups

The heartbroken mother first asked for help from lawmakers and civilian groups to pressure the military until she realized such efforts were of little use in her pursuit for justice.

However, along the way Chen discovered many other families whose sons had died often in suspicious circumstances in the military.

For example, it has been revealed that from 2000-2012 a total of 2,088 active ROC soldiers died while in service, with 322 of those fatalities classified as suicides.

In 1997, Chen founded the Association for the Promotion of Human Rights in the Military as part of her ongoing quest to discover the truth about her son's death while pushing the military to improve its treatment of conscripts.

Her son's case was finally reopened in late 2013 following the establishment of a special commission under the Cabinet to review possible miscarriages of justice in military courts over the past 20 years.

After reviewing Huang's case, the commission turned it over to the Kaohsiung District Prosecutors Office and the Navy has said it is cooperating with the ongoing investigation.

Over the years, Chen has become a figurehead of a national campaign to uphold the human rights of military personnel.

Though long-overdue, Chen said she was thankful for the heartfelt apology by admiral Huang. However, what she wants most of all, other than finding the truth behind her son's case, is for the government to form a permanent unit that will reopen cold cases in the military so that other mothers can know the truth about their loved ones.

Ultimately, she hopes the military will continue to improve and respect human rights so that no one will ever again have to suffer the tragedy of losing a son in such circumstances.