Army investigation reveals abuse of local soldier prior to death

[media-credit name=”Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds” align=”alignleft” width=”470″][/media-credit]
Liz OuYang, president of OCA-NY, flanked by the parents of Danny Chen, a U.S. Army Private from Chinatown whose death in Afghanistan has sparked outrage in the local community, at a press conference last Thursday.
BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  The U.S. Army has released gruesome particulars of the abuse a group of soldiers inflicted on Army Private and Chinatown native, Danny Chen, in the months leading up to his apparent suicide on Oct. 3. Chen’s parents, local advocates and elected officials are now pressing the Army to hold the soldiers’ trials on U.S. soil rather than in Afghanistan, where Chen was deployed.

Last week, officials disclosed snapshots of the merciless bullying Chen endured during his six-week service in Afghanistan. On several occasions, the soldier was exposed to extreme exercises such as doing push-ups with mouthfuls of water and crawling on gravel while carrying heavy equipment, according to Army officials. Chen’s fellow soldiers, eight of whom face criminal charges tied to Chen’s death, mockingly called the 19-year-old Asian-American “dragon lady,” “gook,” and other racial slurs, and ordered him to direct other non-Asian soldiers in Chinese, according to the Army’s latest report.

Then came the heart-wrenching narrative of the assaults that are believed to have precipitated Chen’s suicide: The morning of Tues., Sept. 27, a sergeant dragged Chen out of bed and over 50 meters of gravel to a shower trailer, only to accuse him of breaking a hot water pump. The following Monday, Oct. 3, Chen was forced to crawl with his equipment approximately 100 meters over gravel to his post at a guard tower, where he was battered with rocks.

At 11:13 a.m. that day, a gunshot was heard at the guard tower. Chen’s dead body was later found lying next to his rifle with a gunshot wound to the head.

Army officials from as far as the Southern Regional Command in Afghanistan, Chen’s overseas headquarters, personally delivered the grave findings to Chen’s distraught parents during a closed-door meeting Wed., Jan. 4 at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. Asian-American civil rights organization OCA-NY (Organization for Chinese Americans) held a press conference the following day to relay the grim news.

“This could happen to any one of us because of the color of our skin or the shape of our eyes,” said OCA-NY President Liz OuYang, who along with NYC Councilmember Margaret Chin and Chen’s parents, Yan Tao Chen and Su Zhen Chen, are in ongoing discussions with the U.S. Army to suggest reforms to its diversity training and recruitment policies.

What’s more horrifying, OuYang said, is that two of the highest-ranking military officials in Chen’s platoon were allegedly aware of the Sept. 27 incident and didn’t notify their superiors.

“Had they reported it, Danny may still be alive today,” said OuYang. “It’s simply an outrage.”

The two sergeants, along with six other soldiers from Chen’s unit, have been charged with manslaughter, negligent homicide, and reckless endangerment, which, among other infractions, carry penalties ranging from permanent expulsion from the army to several years in prison.

Chen’s family members and their advocates are now demanding that the trials — which the Army will presumably green-light following military hearings — be moved to a court-martial in the U.S. Whether or not that happens, however, depends on logistics, according to George Wright, an army spokesperson at the Pentagon.

“It depends on a number of factors, such as the backlog of current planned trials and the availability of legal personnel to administrate the trials,” said the spokesperson. And, even if the trial proceedings were to take place in the U.S., Wright noted, they would likely occur in Alaska, Chen’s military home base.

Chen’s parents, who live on the Lower East Side, are demanding that the trials be moved closer to home. “The family has been through absolute hell the last two months,” said OuYang. “To give them some measure of closure, they must have the right to be able to face those found guilty, and ask them why they would do this to their son.”

The word “Afghanistan” alone reminds the family of their son’s tragic death, according to Frank Gee, the parents’ spokesperson.

“They want to avoid that as much as they possibly can, so they would prefer that the trial be held on U.S. soil, as close to the Northeast as possible,” said Gee.

Chen’s teary-eyed mother said that, after all these weeks, the pain caused by her son’s death has far from subsided. Councilmember Chin voiced the parent’s feelings in more detail, having met with her prior to the press conference.

“We had a mother-to-mother talk just now,” said the Councilmember. “She said her heart felt so much pain and hurt when she heard what the Army told her yesterday.”

Councilmember Chin introduced a resolution calling on the U.S. Department of Defense to examine the Army’s cultural diversity training for soldiers. The resolution is expected to come before the City Council for a vote in February. In the meantime, the advocates group is anxiously awaiting a reply to a series of questions about the Army’s policies.

It remains unclear whether the Army indeed has plans to modify or enhance its anti-bullying guidelines. Wright stated that the soldiers’ behavior is “not in keeping” with the Army’s regulations. Asked whether the Army was considering altering training tactics in light of Chen’s suicide, he said, “I won’t say the Army system is broken in such a way that would cause reforms.”

“If there’s a soldier who is not meeting the physical standards required of his job and he is [consequently] subjected to harassment and abuse and punishment and torture,” Wright added, “there are avenues to address and investigate and bring to justice those who inflict that.”