Army Charges Racist Harrassment in the Death of Private Danny Chen

Danny Chen and his mother Su Zhen Chen
Specialist Travis Carden, one of those charged in the death of Danny Chen
Specialist Ryan Offutt, charged in the death of Danny Chen

On December 21st, the American military announced that the Army had charged eight soldiers in Private Danny Chen’s battalion in connection with Private Chen’s death. The soldiers were based at Combat Outpost Palace in Kandahar province. Chen was found dead by a gunshot wound on Oct. 3rd.

The only child of Chinese immigrants, Chen grew up in Chinatown and graduated in 2010 from Manhattan’s Pace University High School. He hoped to join the NYPD after the Army. He joined the army because of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

However, since joining the military, he faced constant harassment, beginning at basic training in Fort Benning Georgia. He wrote, ““People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time. I’m running out of jokes to come back at them.”

In a letter dated in February, Chen wrote to a cousin of harassment by fellow soldiers and superiors, “Since I am the only Chinese person here, everyone knows me by Chen. They ask if I’m from China a few times a day. . . . They also call out my name Chen in a goatlike voice sometimes for no reason.”

Military officials had told Chen’s parents that one night he was pulled from his bed and dragged across the floor because he forgot to turn off a water heater after showering. According to published reports, he was pelted with stones and forced to drink liquids while hung upside down and being mocked as “Jackie Chan.”

The eight soldiers charged are: 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, Sgt. Travis F. Carden.Specialist Thomas P. Curtis and Specialist Ryan Offutt, all of Third Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, First Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. The charges include involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. Two of the eight, Schwartz and Offutt, previous records.

At a press conference on the 21st at the Chinese Consoldiated Benevolent Association in Chinatown, Chen’s mother, a seamstress, described how she didn’t want him to enlist, but his father, a chef, believed his son should make his own decisions. The parents said they do not believe he committed suicide, which is the military believe caused his death. Elizabeth R. OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese-Americans called for no plea-bargaining.

Asian American advocacy groups had been pressing for a more open military investigation for over two months. There was a march the previous week, including members of Occupy Wall Street, to call for justice for Private Chen. In January, Chen’s family will travel to the Pentagon to meet with Army officials as the investigation on Chen’s death continues.

This is one of a number of incidents revealing racism against Asian Americans in the military. This racism is also an echo of the treatment of Asian American soldiers during the Vietnam War, when Asian American soldiers were pulled out of formation to show “what the enemy looks like.” and Asian American women were denigrated.

In October, several Marines were ordered court-martialed for their roles in the death of an Asian-American Marine, Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, from California, who killed himself in April in Afghanistan after being subjected to what military prosecutors said was hazing.