Photo from NY Daily News.
The first time I heard about Danny Chen, I thought, “Not another
Vincent Chin.” Chen, 19, was the target of racial abuse and attacks by his
fellow soldiers, while their superiors in the Army turned a blind eye.
Before he became Private Danny Chen, he was just another Chinese kid
who grew up in New York City’s Chinatown. The only child of two immigrants,
Chen’s biography was similar to many other second-generation Chinese Americans:
his mom worked as a seamstress; his dad worked in restaurants. He excelled in
his studies and was offered a full scholarship to Baruch College in Lower
Manhattan. But Chen didn’t want to go to college; he wanted to join the Army and
eventually join the New York Police Department. He enlisted in 2010,
was deployed to Afghanistan in September 2011 and killed himself 6 weeks later
on October 3, 2011.
Chen’s fellow soldiers verbally and physically abused him—calling him
racial slurs, dragging him through the dirt, beating him up. On October 3,
2011, Chen was forced to crawl hundreds of feet through gravel, carrying all of
his equipment, while his fellow soldiers threw rocks at him. Later that day,
alone in a guard tower, Danny Chen shot himself.
No one served more
than 10 months in prison for torturing the young man and driving him to
suicide. Some insisted that there is always a certain level of hazing in the
military, insinuating that Chen was too weak to withstand the same ritual
abuses suffered by every new guy. However, grouping this case together with
military and fraternity hazing rituals implies that these incidents were stunts
or trials that led to eventual acceptance. In reality, we know that Chen was singled out for being
the only Chinese American in his unit, and was never accepted there.
Here is a breakdown of the defendants' sentences:
First Lieutenant Daniel J. Schwartz: avoided prison time altogether by
taking a plea agreement, the terms of which are undisclosed. He was dismissed
from the Army.
Staff Sergeant Blaine G. Dugas: demotion of 1 rank, 3 months
confinement with 90 days credited for pre-trial confinement
Staff Sergeant Andrew J. Van Bockel: demoted 2 ranks, 60 days hard
labor but credited with 45 days for pre-trial confinement
Sergeant Adam M. Holcomb: 30 days in prison, demoted 1 rank, forfeit 1
months’ pay (approximately $1200)
Sergeant Travis F. Carden: demoted 1 rank, 10 months in prison
Sergeant Jeffrey T. Hurst: demoted 1 rank, 45 days hard labor without
Specialist Thomas P. Curtis: demoted 1 rank, 3 months in prison
Specialist Ryan J. Offutt: demoted 1 rank, 6 months in prison
Naming these men, along with their ranks, highlights the extent to which Chen’s
abusers went up the chain of command. Note that only one person was officially dismissed from the Army.
To put things in perspective, two other suicides involving people of
color in the military showcase a trend of abuse based on perceived racial
differences. Months before Chen’s death, Harry Lew, a
21-year-old lance corporal in the Marines, was punished for falling asleep on
guard duty: his fellows poured sand in his mouth, punched him in the back of
his helmet, and forced him to dig a chest-deep foxhole. That foxhole would be
his final resting place, as he put his gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
In 2010, 20-year-old Brushaun
Anderson, one of only a few Black soldiers in a unit deployed in Iraq, was
ordered to do extreme physical exercise in the heat—and was also forced to wear
a plastic trash bag, because a superior said he was “dirty.” He, too, took his own
life. Like Chen’s abusers, most of the officers and soldiers responsible for
the deaths of these young men were allowed to continue on in their leadership
positions in the military.
On May 17, 2014, nearly three years after his death, a portion of
Elizabeth Street, a bustling street in NYC Chinatown, was renamed Private
Danny Chen Way. As we look back on the end of another APA Heritage Month, it is
imperative to remember that Danny Chen, Harry Lew, and Brushaun Anderson are not anomalies. Even as Asian Americans
seem to be slowly but surely making headway in media and pop culture
representation, we have to ask ourselves how far we have really come.
Representation is a far cry from equality, or even tolerance. We need to be
wary of a false sense of acceptance. We need to recognize that small
victories might well obscure the real workings of what cultural critic and
activist bell hooks calls “imperialist-white
supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy,” a system of interlocking structures
Let us continue the fight of our brave leaders like Grace Lee Boggs
and Yuri Kochiyama, who recognized that the struggle for equality and justice takes
place on multiple grounds and across many divides—those of class, color, sexual
orientation, gender, culture, and religion. To truly understand who and what
killed Private Danny Chen and his peers, we have to look beyond the individuals
who acted unconscionably, and look to the legacy of oppression in the U.S. that
results in the deadly construction of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. Shaking
off this history may be impossible, but we owe it to ourselves—to these young
men, and so many others—to think beyond the shallow tenets of multiculturalism and
lip service paid to “cultural appreciation,” and recognize that we are still
being targeted, hurt, and killed by imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.
Rest in power, brothers. We will not forget.
Editor's Note: The names, ranks, and punishments of Private Chen's abusers have been added to this post.