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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Criminal military charges have been made, and new, disturbing details released, concerning the sudden death of Private Danny Chen on Oct. 3. The charges, at least, give Chen’s family and others hope that justice is on the way.
Chen, 19, an Army private from the East Village who was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head in a guard tower in Kandahar, Afghanistan, is now believed to have committed suicide, according to U.S. Army officials, who released a new report Wed., Dec. 21, on the military’s investigation into his death.
Eight soldiers of the Third Battalion, including one higher-ranking officer, purportedly precipitated Chen’s death by physically and verbally harassing the Asian-American. The soldiers have consequently been slammed with a litany of charges, including involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and reckless endangerment, as well as maltreatment and verbal threats.
The accused soldiers are First Lieutenant Daniel J. Schwartz, Sergeant Blaine G. Dugas, Sergeant Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sergeant Adam M. Holcomb, Sergeant Jeffrey T. Hurst, Specialist Thomas P. Curtis, Specialist Ryan J. Offutt and Sergeant Travis F. Carden.
While in Afghanistan, Chen was allegedly hung, forced to swallow liquids and hit with rocks by fellow soldiers and superiors, according to Councilmember Margaret Chin’s Office. In notes to his friends, Chen spoke of being harassed and of being the only Chinese-American that attended military training sessions at Fort Benning in Georgia prior to being deployed in Afghanistan.
Chen also reportedly wrote home, saying that it was “best not to respond” to the harassment, but also that he was “running out of jokes to respond with,” according to Chin’s Office.
Earlier Army accounts revealed that Chen was dragged out of bed and racially taunted by his peers in the hours prior to his death.
“A preliminary hearing will be held to determine if there is sufficient evidence to take the matter to a trial by a courtmartial,” Army spokesperson George Wright said of the charges. The trials would begin sometime in the coming months, Wright said, either in Afghanistan or in this country.
Wright added, “The Army is a values-based organization. We inculcate our soldiers with the need to treat all with dignity and respect. We enforce standards, and when our soldiers fail to meet those standards, we take appropriate action.”
Chinatown community activists and politicians — who strongly back the Army’s ongoing investigation — were pleased to hear that charges have been pressed. Hours after the news broke on the morning of Dec. 21, the New York chapter of OCA, an Asian-American civil rights organization, held a press conference in Chinatown to report the latest developments.
“We don’t want any plea bargains here. The soldiers need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said OCA-NY President Liz OuYang.
“Justice for those that did this to Danny is an important element of ensuring these incidents don’t happen again,” she said.
The charges “are an important first step in ensuring that those responsible for this deplorable crime are brought to justice,” echoed Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in a statement. “I also hope that this horrible incident will lead the U.S. Army to increase sensitivity training and to improve its outreach to the Asian-American community,” Silver added.
“It’s a good beginning,” said Councilmember Chin, “but I think they still need to do the full investigative report.”
OuYang, Chin and others met with Wright and other Army officials at the Pentagon last Wed., Dec. 14, to discuss the military’s training and recruitment policies, with the hope that some of its rules will be altered and others more strictly enforced.
“The meeting wasn’t specifically about Chen’s case, because they told us the case was still under investigation,” Chin explained.
The concerned group demanded that, moving forward, commanding officers and other supervising soldiers be monitored and held accountable for their actions while on duty. They said appropriate interventions must be made “to weed out people who have racist views,” according to OuYang.
“We want there to be clear guidelines that the commanding officer will be disciplined if these types of hazing occur under his watch,” she said. “Based on numerous reports of Asian-American soldiers, diversity training is not effective, and we want community input into it.”
The officials were “receptive” to the group’s queries, according to Chin.
“It was a very productive meeting,” the councilmember said. “We gave them a whole bunch of questions they said they’d answer in about two weeks, and we’re going to be following up on their response.”
A follow-up meeting is tentatively scheduled for the second week of January, according to Wright.
“Army leaders discussed diversity, investigation and reporting procedures, leadership and accountability,” Wright said. “They also pledged to look at ways to continue this dialogue and review diversity training and policies.
“Our intent is to bring in soldiers that are openminded and that are willing to embrace a diverse subculture called the Army,” he said.
Chen’s father, Yan Tao Chen, and mother, Su Zhen Chen, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. They will be meeting with Army officials to learn more about their son’s maltreatment while in the service. The meeting will take place Wed., Jan. 4, at the Fort Hamilton Army base in Brooklyn, according to Frank Gee, the couple’s spokesperson and interpreter.
“After two months of agonizing over their loss, they sort of feel relieved of conflict by the seriousness of the Army that they’re going to prosecute eight soldiers,” Gee said. “They hope the truth will come out to prevent anything like this from happening again.”