12.21.11

Arrests of Service Men Raises Question of Racism in Soldier's Death

Family and friends of Danny Chen, who apparently shot himself to death in Afghanistan, say racist taunts and bullying led to the tragedy, and they are demanding more action beyond the arrests of eight of his fellow soldiers. His best friend tells Diane Herbst he does not believe Chen took his own life.

Eight U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have been charged in connection with the October 3 death of fellow G.I. Danny Chen, who allegedly shot himself to death in a guard tower. But alleged racist taunts and bullying leading up to the tragedy of the Chinese-American’s apparent suicide, at 19, have left Chen’s family and friends outraged.

“We were told that he was dragged from his bed across the floor, and other soldiers threw rocks at his back,” Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, tells The Daily Beast. And, OuYang says, while forced to do chin-ups with liquid in his mouth, “Danny couldn’t cough up the liquid.”

OuYoung says the anti-Asian bullying and taunting started during basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, when fellow soldiers used a mocking accent while calling him Jackie Chen, a reference to the action star Jackie Chan. A diary that Chen kept, as well as information released by the Army, are the basis for her claims.

And now OuYoung, friends and family are struggling to find more answers: Was this even a suicide, or a cold-blooded murder?

“The announcement of these charges provides further proof of our community’s concern that Private Chen’s death was not a simple suicide,” says Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) in a statement. “There’s clearly more going on here and Danny’s family needs to know exactly what happened....This is just the beginning. We won’t rest until the truth comes out and those involved are held accountable.”

First Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, Spec. Thomas P. Curtis, Spec. Ryan J. Offutt, and Sgt. Travis F. Carden were all charged with counts ranging from dereliction of duty to making a false statement, to assault, negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.

The Army’s statement does not clarify whether it believes the soldiers actually killed Chen or that alleged mistreatment of Chen led him to take his own life.

At a press conference Wednesday and through an interpreter, his mother, Su Zhen Chen, wept as she spoke about more than two months “of agonizing over our loss.” “It’s of some comfort and relief to learn that the Army is taking this seriously,” she said. “We hope that the truth will come out and that what happened will not be repeated over again.” Danny’s father, Yen Tao Chen, said the charges “give us some hope.”

Danny’s best friend, Raymond Dong, does not believe his friend took his own life. “He didn’t mention any depression, he sounded really happy,”says Dong, of his final communication with his pal via a Facebook chat on September 27, just six days before the young soldier’s death. “He said, ‘I can’t wait until I come back and eat Vietnamese noodles.’”

Dong met Chen in third grade in New York’s Chinatown, and describes his almost lifelong friend as “a very funny guy,” adding, “Every day we’d crack jokes on each other.” The pair attended the same schools through their June, 2010 graduation from Pace High School and remained close when Danny started basic training in January.

“They definitely have to be responsible with his death because knowing Danny, he wouldn’t commit suicide, he won’t start trouble, he’s not an instigator,” says Dong, 19, a college student from Ridgewood, Queens. “I kinda thought someone was hazing him but I didn’t think it would be such a higher rank. They should know better than to do something like this.”

“The announcement of these charges provides further proof of our community’s concern that Private Chen’s death was not a simple suicide.”

Despite being in honors classes, Chen had no desire to attend college. “He said he wanted to do something new in life,” says Dong, “something fun, with action.”

His death, and reports that he had been mistreated, led OuYoung and others to call on the Army to carry out a swift investigation. Last week, hundreds of people attended a vigil demanding answers.

Danny, the only child of Su Zhen, a seamstress, and Yan Tao, a chef, lived in public housing on the Lower East Side. Now his distraught parents are looking for a new—and smaller —apartment. “The apartment has a great deal of memories, and it’s been very depressing for the mother,” says OuYang. “It’s been recommended that they move.”