Since Private Danny Chen died in Afghanistan in October, his loved ones have struggled to learn the events leading up to his death. Yesterday, thanks to tireless advocacy by his family and activists in the Chinese-American community, the U.S. Army finally provided some answers.
“Over two months, this family has learned by dribs and drabs what happened to their son,” said Liz OuYang, the president of the Organization of Chinese Americans New York chapter, told a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of journalists at a Chinatown press conference this afternoon. OCA-New York has led the fight for justice in Chen’s death. “It takes a volunteer civil rights organization, plus many other organizations, plus the family, plus the press, to demand the truth and make the system work.”
After a Dec. 15 march in Chinatown involving 36 community groups, 10,000 viewings of a video about Chen, 5,000 petition signatures and other efforts including demands from local elected officials, Army leaders invited the family to Fort Hamilton yesterday, where they finally coughed up details of the 19-year-old private’s time serving in Afghanistan. OuYang painted a grim picture of their revelations, which have led military investigators to charge eight of his fellow soldiers in his Oct. 3 death by self-inflicted gunshot.
Immediately after arriving in August, she said, Chen was subjected to “excessive exercises” which “quickly crossed over into abuse,” the family was told. Over the course of six weeks, he was made to do push-ups and sit-ups under extreme conditions, such as holding mouthfuls of water, as well as crawling over gravel carrying full loads of gear. He was subjected to racial slurs including “Chink” and “Dragon Lady.” While his platoon was constructing a new tent, Chen was ridiculed and ordered to issue commands in Chinese, even though no one else present spoke his native language.
On Sept. 27, a few days before his death, he was dragged across a gravel surface to the shower tent and told he’d broken the hot water pump, among other incidents that day, OuYoung relayed. While some of the information revealed in yesterday’s meeting with officials was not new, the frequency and duration of the hazing Chen experienced was made clear for the first time.
“What happened to Danny can happen to any one of us because of the color of our skin or the shape of our eyes,” said OuYang, who described her reaction to the revelations as “pure outrage” — particularly when military officials made it clear that senior members of Chen’s platoon were aware of at least some of the abuse happening in their ranks and failed to prevent it.
The family members and the coalition of supporters is now taking up the call to hold the court martials of the accused soldiers on U.S. soil rather than in Afghanistan.
“We must have access to this procees. We must be able to see justice served,” OuYang said, as Chen’s mother wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. “Danny’s family must have access to these trials. We ask the public to join with us and demand that these trial be held in the United States.”
It’s up to Army leaders to decide the venue; if the trials are moved to the U.S., they will likely be held in Alaska, where Chen was dispatched from, OuYang said.
Comptroller John Liu, who was present, pledged his support to the drive to move the trials stateside, as did Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown. In addition, Chin introduced a resolution at a City Council meeting yesterday calling for the Department of Defense to reform its training and recruitment policies to better address diversity issues.
In the wake of Chen’s death, it’s become clear his was not an isolated case of mistreatment and prejudice, OuYang said.
“We have been collecting stories of other Asian-Americans in the military, and they are are shocking and they are sad,” she said.