Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion opens on the eve of the third anniversary of Danny Chen’s death. The 19-year-old Army private was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. From the start of his deployment he suffered racial abuse and physical violence at the hands of his fellow soldiers. In October, 2011, after an especially brutal episode, he was found in a guard tower, dead, from non-combat related injuries.
In 2012, eight soldiers of superior rank to Chen were court-martialed for their roles in the hazing activities that military prosecutors argued had led to Chen’s death. The trials resulted in individual punishments that included brief jail time for some, but no convictions on the most serious charges. Incensed by the trial outcomes, the New York branch of the Organization of Chinese Americans worked with Pvt. Chen’s family to draw public attention to racial abuse in the military.
In Spring 2014, family and supporters commemorated Chen’s life by naming the block of Elizabeth Street at Delancey in Danny’s honor—on the street where the Chens had once lived.
Danny Chen was a New York City kid whose parents emigrated from China’s southeastern region of Taishan, and worked in the city’s restaurant and garment industries. He grew up in Manhattan Chinatown and the Lower East Side—a quiet, smart, and studious boy, according to friends and family.
After high school, Chen acted on a long-held dream. Instead of going to college like many of his friends, he chose the Army. He trained at Fort Wainwright in Alaska, and was sent to a remote combat outpost in Kandahar Province—the only Chinese American in his platoon. There, he became the target of a small group of fellow soldiers who made his life so miserable that one military prosecutor said to the jury, “No wonder death seemed like the only option.”
The same year that Chen died, another case of severe racial harassment led to the death of 21-year-old Chinese American Marine, Harry Lew, nephew of Congresswoman Judy Chu. The year before that, it was 20-year-old African American Army Spc. Brushaun Anderson.
In the face of these and other instances of abuse, Congresswoman Chu and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Armed Services Committee, both sponsored laws to hold the military accountable for identifying, tracking, and preventing hazing in the ranks, as well as improving its prosecution. Elements of their bills were included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 (pp. 96-97).
Others, too, are taking steps to remember Danny Chen and draw attention to the abhorrent practice of racial hazing in the U.S. Armed Forces. In 2014, playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Huang Ruo premiered their new opera, An American Soldier, at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
And Independent filmmaker ManSee Kong is making a feature documentary called What Happened to Danny.
“The military must make it clear that hazing is absolutely unacceptable and that the perpetrators will be severely punished. We must protect those who protect us.”
—Congresswoman Judy Chu, D-CA
Images courtesy of the Chen Family and Jacky Tik Wong. Additional image courtesy of Newscom. Special thanks to ManSee Kong.