On October 3, 2011, Private Danny Chen was found dead at a guard tower in Kandahar province, Afghanistan from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. His suicide was preceded by racial harassment and beatings from his fellow soldiers — all because he was of Chinese descent.
Chen, a Chinatown, NYC native, was bright and full of personality. Banny Chen, his cousin, also remembers him fondly. At a family wedding, eight-year-old Danny Chen was the first on the dance floor, busting moves like no one was watching. “And eventually, people started joining one by one,” Banny Chen said to the Washington Post.
Raymond Dong, a friend of Chen’s, told NY Mag that he could fall asleep in class, have the teacher call on him to answer a question, and he’d still get the right answer. “You could do a lot better than join the Army,” he remembers telling Chen. “You’re so smart.”
Despite protests from friends, family members, and teachers, Chen wanted to join the army. “I want to live for myself,” he had told Dong, “not for someone else.”
Nine months after he had enlisted, he was dead.
His cousin, Banny Chen, recounted the night he learned of Chen’s death
“All they told me was that Danny is dead,” Banny Chen said. “I didn’t know how to respond, honestly, and right after I hung up the phone, I threw the phone across the hallway. That was my first reaction.”
Slowly, details started to emerge. At first, the family thought he had been killed by enemy fire; when they learned he committed suicide, they were shocked. Soon, they learned about the extensive abuses Chen’s fellow soldiers had put him through, such as being called “gook”, “chink”, “dragon lady”, “Jackie Chan”, and “soy sauce”, being assigned excessive guard duty to the point of exhaustion, and, perhaps most frustratingly, being ignored when he reported these instances to his higher ups.
One incident of abuse started after Chen, the only Chinese-American in his unit, forgot to bring his helmet and sufficient water for his shift. He was then ordered to crawl 100 meters over gravel while fellow soldiers threw rocks at him. Another occurred on September 27, 2011, when a sergeant physically removed him from his bed, dragging him approximately 15 meters to a shower, which resulted in bruises and cuts along his back.
When he reported this incident, his first lieutenant and staff sergeant and the supervisors decided not to document it.
Eight soldiers were initially charged with varying offenses in relation to Chen’s death: 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sgt. Travis F. Carden, Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, Spc. Thomas P. Curtis, and Spc. Ryan J. Offutt. The soldiers all belonged to C Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Styker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
The charges included involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, assault, maltreatment, reckless endangerment, making false statements, and dereliction of duty. After some legal finagling, Schwartz, Chen’s platoon officer, was able to avoid charges such as involuntary manslaughter and a court-martial, which carried a cumulative maximum penalty of 13 years and was instead dismissed from the army — all charges against him dropped.
Holcomb, the first soldier involved to stand trial, plead not guilty to a series of charges including negligent homicide, assault, maltreatment of a subordinate, communicating a threat, reckless endangerment, dereliction of duty, and violating a lawful general regulation; combined, these charges carried a maximum prison sentence of up to 17 years and 9 months. He was ultimately sentenced to thirty days in jail on the assault charge, demoted one rank, and fined.
Offutt, the second soldier involved to stand trial, faced charges such as negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, hazing, and maltreatment. He was initially sentenced to serve six months in prison, but he later appealed and won his case. Instead, he was reduced to an E-1 rank and discharged with a Bad Conduct Discharge.
Carden was demoted to private and received a “Bad Conduct Discharge” after being found guilty of calling Chen racial slurs and forcing him to perform physically demeaning tasks. He was sentenced to serve ten months in prison. VanBockel, convicted of hazing, maltreatment of a subordinate, and dereliction of duty, was demoted two ranks and sentenced to perform 60 days of hard labor, which was later reduced.
Many Asian-Americans were angered by the lenient sentences the soldiers connected to the case received.
“The longest jail sentence of all of the eight was simply six months,” said Elizabeth OuYang, president of Organization of Chinese Americans-NY. “A slap on the wrist.”
“I felt that the eight soldiers who were charged and court martialed definitely deserved more than what they were punished for,” Banny Chen said.
Today, a portion of Elizabeth Street in Chinatown, Manhattan, now named Danny Chen Way, is one of the few reminders his friends and family have of their beloved son, cousin, friend, and family member. They feel the pain of their missing loved one and hope that the Army will do better to prevent heartbreaking cases like this in the future.
“We ask the Army to try harder to stop hazing in the Army so no other parent has to suffer like we have,” Chen’s mother, Suzhen Chen, said.