Volume 81, Number 22 | November 3 - 9, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Private Danny Chen.

Community wants answers in local soldier’s death

BY ALINE REYNOLDS 

A criminal investigation is underway to trace the cause of death of Army Private Danny Chen, 19, whose body was found Oct. 3 in a guard tower in Kandahar, Afghanistan, with a gunshot wound to the head.

The fatality was not combat related, according to Christopher Grey, a U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesperson.

“We’re conducting a very thorough and in-depth investigation into Private Chen’s death,” Grey said. “It would be premature to discuss anything that happened, in order to protect the case.”

Local elected officials and community organizations are demanding a timely and comprehensive study of the East Villager’s death, which they believe might correlate with racial harassment the private purportedly experienced while overseas.

“We want to know the truth of what happened to Danny Chen. No lies, no coverups, just the truth,” said Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York branch of the Organization of Chinese Americans at an Oct. 17 press conference held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association offices. Principals from P.S. 130, M.S. 131 and Pace High School, where Chen went to school, attended the event to show their solidarity.

“Anyone found culpable for the death of Private Danny Chen must be held accountable,” said OuYang.

Community representatives and politicians requested a meeting with U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh and Department of Defense Inspector General Gordon Heddell to discuss the growing trend of race-related crimes in the Army.

“All these relatives, I remember at the funeral, surrounded me and said, ‘Margaret, we demand answers,’” said Councilmember Margaret Chin. “If there was any wrongdoing or any mistreatment of Danny, we want to know.”

Since the beginning  of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 1,100 soldiers have committed suicide, including 301 last year alone, according to Congressmember Nydia Velazquez.

“Danny wasn’t supposed to die this way,” Velazquez said. “If anything, his death should not be in vain, and we could use this occasion to take any measure that will provide safety and security for our sons and daughters in the military.”

Army officials reportedly informed Chen’s parents that a group of fellow soldiers bullied him and that he was dragged out of bed and assaulted on one ocassion because he neglected to shut off a hot water heater in the soldiers’ living quarters. Bruises covered the back of Chen’s dead body, the officials told his parents, but it is unclear if the contusions were connected to this particular alleged assault.

Chen’s parents were surprised when they were told of the bullying. They said their son had never talked of being racially taunted.

“We never heard about any harrassment from anybody,” said Chen’s mother, Su Zhen Chen, who spoke with her son while he was deployed overseas in August.

The Chens don’t believe their son would’ve committed suicide.

“I think he enjoyed the Army,” said his father, Yan Tao Chen. “Ever since he was a little kid, that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to join the police force after his service, so the Army was a means of getting there.”

As the family honored their son’s life at a funeral service two weeks ago on Mulberry St., dozens of Lower Manhattan residents, young and old, who didn’t know Chen personally, congregated in front of the funeral home to pay their respects.

“It touched a nerve. I felt like I had to come down here,” said Paul Cook, a West Villager who waited outside the funeral home to catch a glimpse of the procession.

Cook said the events surrounding Chen’s death and the way he died are troubling.

“It infuriates you,” he said. “It’s bad enough to hear all the other things that happen to people over there.”

Several veterans, including from the Vietnam War, stood in front of the funeral home to commemorate Chen. Len Williams, a former platoon leader in the Vietnam, said, “War is stressful as is. Nobody wants to see somebody die as a result of hatred from somebody in their own unit.”

Williams said he never felt personally threatened by his fellow soldiers while on duty. 

“I’m sure there were men that hated me,” he said, “but I thought I had a good working relationship with my company.”

Chen’s family and friends, meanwhile, are grieving his loss.

“He was a cool guy,” said an M.S. 131 classmate of Chen’s who lives in his family’s apartment building at E. Fourth in the Lillian Wald Houses, where Danny grew up.

The teen, who requested anonymity, is also enlisted in the Army and will soon be sent overseas. As an Asian-American, he said he worries constantly about his own security.

“It’s always on your mind,” he said. “If you’re the minority, they’re going to try to find your weakness. I always pray and hope for the best.”

Raymond Dong, who said he was Chen’s best friend, described him as easygoing.

“I knew him since third grade,” Dong said. “After school, we would go to the gym, eat and have fun. He liked to always make jokes.”

Dong is also confident Chen didn’t commit suicide, since his friend showed no signs of distress during a phone conversation they had a week prior to his death.

“He sounded really happy and stuff,” said Dong. “He got bullied a few times in school, but he’d never do anything like that.”

Though too distraught to attend the Oct. 17 press conference, Chen’s grieving parents said they felt comforted by the community’s support. When asked whether they regret their son’s decision to join the Army, his father replied, “It’s something he enjoyed, so I have no regrets.”

“I have no bitterness toward the Army,” his mother said, “but I want to find out the facts, so it’ll never happen to someone else again.”

In disappointing news to Chen’s parents, this week they learned that their request for a meeting with the U.S. Army to discuss their son’s death had been denied. The community is now pushing for a meeting to probe the wider issue of ethnic-based harassment of Asians in the military.

“This is very important for the Asian-American community in the United States,” said Councilmember Chin. “We are Americans and we love our country. We want to know that, when we send our sons and daughters to fight for this country, they are not unfairly targeted by their fellow soldiers and commanders because they are of Asian descent.”

Army officials said that Chen’s autopsy report is not yet finished, according to a spokesperson for the councilmember. Chen’s parents have authorized the release of the report, once it is finished, to Congressmember Velazquez — in hopes that it will shed greater light on the cause of his death.

Meanwhile, the Army has returned to Chen’s parents his civilian clothes along with his watch, but not his cell phone or computer, which Chen’s parents have asked for as well. Army officials also have not given them the military clothes Chen was wearing when he died, despite the parents’ wishes to have them.

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