Chen, a 19-year-old Chinese American soldier, committed suicide after suffering hazing from his fellow soldiers at a military base in Afghanistan.
This story originally appeared in World Journal
Translated by Rong Xiaoqing from Chinese
Nine years ago, Private Danny Chen, a 19-year-old Chinese American soldier, committed suicide after suffering hazing from his fellow soldiers at a military base in Afghanistan. On October 3rd, family members, community activists and elected officials gathered at Private Danny Chen Way in Chinatown to commemorate the anniversary of his death. They also called for the public to pay more attention to hazing and discrimination in the military and for the military to guarantee fair treatment of every soldier.
In 2011, Chen, the only child of his family, joined the army despite his parent’s opposition, driven by his patriotism. He volunteered to go to serve in Afghanistan. As the only Asian soldier in his unit, he was singled out for racist verbal and physical harassment. Chen committed suicide at the base after spending only nine months in the military.
Chen’s family originally thought he was killed by the enemy. Only after more information emerged did they realize that he might have committed suicide because of the racism and taunting from his fellow soldiers. They forced him to crawl on the ground, threw stones at his back, and made him do push-ups while holding water in his mouth.
Despite the military’s attempts to conclude the case as a suicide, activists like Liz Ouyang, chair of the civil rights and advisory committee of the Organization of Chinese Americans, New York chapter, and elected officials like Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Councilmember Margaret Chin demanded justice for Chen. After a few months of pressing from the activists and elected officials, the military finally agreed to send eight soldiers related to the case to military court. The case led former President Barack Obama to sign anti-hazing legislation.
Ouyang said that even after Chen’s death, suicides and missing person cases in the military still happen: 28 soldiers died at the Fort Hood military base in the past year. Several of them went missing after hazing or sexual harassment and their bodies were only found days later. She said these incidents deserve more attention from the public so that they won’t happen again.
Benny Chen, a cousin of Chen, said his cousin Danny lived on Elizabeth Street in Chinatown when they were children, and the two often hung out together at Columbus Park. “Danny enjoyed his life. He always could make you laugh, and he always tried to make the right choice when he encountered unfairness,” said Benny. “Our family misses Danny every day. Please don’t forget him.”
Participants at the event hit a drum 28 times to acknowledge that Chen would be 28 years old if he were still alive. For the anniversary in previous years, students from P.S. 130 would march to Danny Chen Way to place flowers there. Because of COVID-19, they had to watch the event online this year. Participants called for the younger generation to not forget. They said the lesson everyone should learn from Chen’s experience is that issues of bullying and hazing should be solved immediately once they emerge.