For the last two months, the family of Private Danny Chen, his friends, and the Chinese-American community in New York City have had only one question: what happened to Danny?
The answer to this question has shone a light on the darker side of our military. Undoubtedly, the best military in the world, but also one where looking, sounding, or acting different is sometimes all it takes to earn the contempt of your peers.
Last week, the Army handed down charges of involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, and assault, among others, against eight U.S. servicemen in connection with the death of Private Danny Chen, who was found dead on October 3, 2011 in a guard tower in Kandahar Providence in Southern Afghanistan. He was 19 years old.
Danny died of an "apparent self-afflicted gunshot wound," according to Army reports. But the charges could confirm what Danny's friends and family already knew: Danny's fellow soldiers were responsible for his death.
The charges filed against one officer, with the rank of First Lieutenant, as well as two Staff Sergeants, three Sergeants, and two Specialists -- all superior ranks -- have sparked worldwide outrage.
How could prolonged bullying and harassment -- which followed Danny from basic training in Georgia to his base in Afghanistan -- not only be ignored, but also perpetrated, by the very people who were supposed to protect him?
Danny was born in New York City's Chinatown and raised in public housing on the Lower East Side. By all accounts he was a good student, soft-spoken, but outgoing and funny. At a young age, Danny expressed his desire to serve his country. He planned to join the New York City Police Department after his time in the service. His mother worried for his safety and asked him not to go. He was her only child. His father said he was old enough to make his own decisions.
At first, it seems, Danny took the taunts about his ethnicity in stride. During basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia, Danny wrote home to his parents, "Everyone here jokingly makes fun of me for being Asian." But in later letters to his parents, the hurt is palpable. "People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time; I'm running out of jokes to come back at them," he wrote. The "jokes" were actually ethnic slurs. Danny was mocked. He was nicknamed "Jackie Chen," in reference to the actor Jackie Chan. In a letter dated February 27, 2011, Danny wrote that his fellow soldiers called his name in a "goat-like voice" and "they ask if I am from China a few times a day."
Danny was not born in China; he was born in New York City. He was a Chinese American. He was a young, patriotic man who volunteered to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
While deployed in Afghanistan, Danny was allegedly dragged out of bed and across the floor after he failed to shut off the hot water. His superiors forced him to crawl on the ground while they threw rocks at him and taunted him with ethnic slurs. They ordered him to do pull-ups with a mouthful of water while forbidding him from spitting it out, according to Chen's family, who spoke about the details of the case with Army officials on Wednesday.
The extent of harassment and physical abuse their child suffered has devastated the Chen family. Although the Chen family is strong, the way in which Danny died has profoundly affected his parents. The Chen's accepted that Danny may lose his life on the battlefield. They never expected Danny to be the victimized by his fellow soldiers. Danny's father has taken a leave of absence from work. His mother cannot bear to live in a home that her son will never return to.
In the same month Danny died, justice had begun to be served in the tragic death of another Chinese-American serviceman, Lance Corporal Harry Lew. Lance Corporal Lew shot himself in a hole he had been ordered to dig as punishment for falling asleep at his guard post. Lew was also a victim of verbal and physical abuse while serving in the military. As a result of the investigation into his death, three Marines have been court-martialed and charged with "wrongfully humiliating and demeaning" Lew. In 2011 alone, there were 154 suicides among active duty troops in the army, according to CBS news.
Our calls for justice in these cases are mixed with the sobering realization that the most dangerous threats to our servicemen and women can come from within. These victims are united by the fact that they are both Chinese-American, but that does not define them. This is not only a Chinese-American issue, but an American issue. Bullying and hazing are issues that cut across lines of gender, class, and ethnicity.
The alleged perpetrators of this abuse contributed to Danny's death and ultimately weakened our military as a whole. These eight soldiers broke the bonds of brotherhood, loyalty, and camaraderie that give our military its great strength. During this difficult time, it is a comfort to know that this is an opportunity for all Americans join the call to change the culture of our military. We must root out intolerance in our armed forces.
Support has poured in from across our nation. I know the Chen family is buoyed by the outpouring of sympathy for the loss of their son. At a meeting at the Pentagon last week, I, along with members of the Organization of Chinese-Americans (OCA), asked top Army officials for concrete reforms, including screening of recruits for biased attitudes and behavior, enhanced diversity training that directly addresses bullying and hazing, and more accountability on behalf of commanding officers.
All the details of Danny's case have not yet been revealed, and questions still linger about the circumstances surrounding his death. But one thing is clear: we cannot let this happen again.
Sign the petition calling for a clear and transparent investigation into Danny's death here: http://www.oca-ny.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=161:letter-to-the-secretary-of-the-army&catid=54:active-petitions&Itemid=79
Follow Margaret S. Chin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@CM_MargaretChi