By Rebeccah Ziskr
After the tragic 2011 suicide of Private Danny Chen, a U.S. Army soldier in Afghanistan, a subsequent national campaign was spearheaded by the Organization of Chinese Americans New York chapter (OCA-NY) along with several other human rights organizations and student groups, including the Alpha Phi Omega (APO) National Service Fraternity at Baruch College, that have resulted in both House and Senate representatives advocating for new federal anti-hazing legislation.
Chen was found dead due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2011. It has since been discovered that Chen, who was a Chinese-American soldier, was subjected to excessive mistreatment and racial taunts by his superiors during his first and only combat tour.
It is believed that this taunting, along with severe hazing directed at Chen by his squad members, contributed to Chen’s suicide.
Born and raised in Manhattan’s Chinatown district by his father, a chef, and seamstress mother, Chen was an only child.
After graduating from Pace University High School in 2010, he attended Baruch College on a full scholarship for a brief period before dropping out to join the U.S. Army against his family’s wishes in January 2011.
Shortly after being assigned to a unit based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, his unit was given orders for a tour in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
During this time Chen was singled out, as he was the only Chinese-American Soldier in his unit. Everyday for six weeks he endured physical and verbal abuse by fellow soldiers and superiors. He was often called gook, chink and dragon lady.
A few days before Chen was found dead, an officer in his unit dragged Chen out of bed and across about 50 feet of gravel, leaving bruises and lacerations on Chen’s back. The incident was reported to Chen’s supervisors, but they took no action.
On the day of his death, Chen was forced to crawl on rough gravel for about 330 feet while carrying a heavy load of personal equipment. His fellow comrades reportedly threw rocks at him while this occurred.
On Dec. 21, 2011, eight superiors were charged with offenses, ranging from dereliction of duty to negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter.
In March 2012, army investigators recommended to drop the most serious charge, involuntary manslaughter, which carries maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
In response, on Dec. 16, 2011, OCA-NY organized a march and vigil in honor of Chen. Hundreds of people gathered to mourn and express their anger for the lack of answers about Chen’s death.
APO President Ivy Teng Lei, who has been very active in justice-seeking efforts, spoke at the march. She believes Chen’s death should not be considered a suicide.
“He always wanted to join the military, and he goes and finally takes his first step towards achieving his dream, and he didn’t have a chance to realize it because the system killed him. Danny didn’t kill himself, he didn’t commit suicide; our military system killed him,” said Lei.
“As of early December, the House and Senate both passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which includes parts of Rep. Velaquez and Sen. Gillibrand’s anti-hazing bills,” said Lei.
The conference committee, which is comprised of both House and Senate delegates, spent much of December working to reconcile the separate proposals to come up with one bill that was approved by President Barack Obama on Jan. 3.
Each bill contains different but important steps to combat hazing.
The bill establishes the requirement for a full, anonymously prepared report of all hazing incidents and orders that an official definition of hazing be added to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the set of rules that that governs the one controversial aspect of the bill, according to Lei, is its creation of an allowance for the military to indefinitely sentence anyone suspected as a terrorist to life in prison.
Lei’s fraternity is one of many student groups pushing for the Service Member Anti-Hazing Bill.
“We voiced our support for anti-hazing legislation that has been introduced in both the House and Senate by New York Congresswoman Nydia Velaquez, California Congresswoman Judy Chu and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand,” said Lei.
While some hope the anti-hazing bill will change how the military handles discrimination, minority groups feel it is too little too late.
“The bill came at a cost too high for the future of minorities in our military. Danny would still be alive had transferring between units were quicker, or even possible,” said Lei.
Proponents of the bill hope it will lead to further progress in the fight for equality. As Raymond Dong, Chen’s best friend, said during a recent press conference, “The Asian American community has gone a long way since Danny’s death, but we can’t say the same for our military system.”
OCA-NY and APO, while optimistic about the creation of the bill, are furtively watching to see how military leaders act to implement and enforce the policies established by the new bill.