Remembering Danny

Memorializing a US Army private whose suicide is under investigation.

May 16, 2012

A funeral wreath encircles a photo of Chen on top of the hearse at his funeral on October 13, 2011. Photography by Corky Lee.

At 11:13 a.m. on a cold Monday morning in Afghanistan, another American soldier’s life was taken away. This time, the soldier’s death was not the result of shots fired by an enemy attack nor was it the result of “friendly fire.” In fact, there was nothing friendly about this matter.

In a guard tower overlooking his military camp in Afghanistan, 19-year-old US Army Private Danny Chen took his life with a bullet from his own rifle. While there is no doubt as to who physically ended Chen’s life last October, what remains uncertain is who was responsible for leading him down that path. For more than four months, the US military justice system has been deliberating whether the Army confirmed racial discrimination and military hazing carried out by Chen’s superiors and fellow soldiers played a role in his suicide.

As the only Chinese American soldier in his unit, military reports confirm that Chen was tormented and singled out by his superiors on a daily basis. His fellow soldiers — those who were supposed to protect and defend Chen — called him “gook,” “chink” and “dragon lady” while they pelted rocks at his body and head during their military training several months before they arrived in the Middle East together. They continued this humiliation and degradation until the very last hour of Chen’s death. Eight soldiers have been linked to Chen’s death and are awaiting trial; five of them have been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

In these photographs, Corky Lee captures the emotions of Chen’s parents, family and friends in Manhattan, NY’s Chinatown — where Chen was born and raised — following Chen’s death. With Chen’s casket draped in red, white and blue, the faces of grief, sadness, anger and confusion are a testament of both justice unmet and the question as to why racial discrimination remains an imminent danger to our community. Through his camera lens, Lee delves deep into the minds of those who continue to mourn Chen’s death, at his burial and beyond.

New York City Comptroller John Liu (holding microphone) calls for an investigation into Chen’s death, addressing the crowd of more than 600 who marched from a nearby Army recruiting station to Chinatown on December 15, 2011.

Chen’s casket is lifted into the hearse by members of the US Army Color Guard.

Occupy Wall Street participants also showed support for Chen at the December 15 march and vigil.

Mourners leave the funeral.

Chen’s father, Yantao Chen, at the funeral.

A traditional Chinese memorial in Chinatown’s Columbus Park, with a list of signatures calling for justice for Chen, on the night of the march.

The funeral procession through the streets of Chinatown, followed by a veterans’ motorcycle group.

Corky Lee is a photojournalist living in New York City. His work last appeared in Hyphen’s Issue 24 in a photo essay about the Vietnamese community in New Orleans.

Peter J. Swing is a communications consultant to the Asian American Justice Center. He last wrote about his experience as a US Marine serving in the Middle East.

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