On October 3, 2011, Private Danny Chen was found dead at a guard tower in Kandahar province, Afghanistan from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. His suicide was preceded by racial harassment and beatings from his fellow soldiers — all because he was of Chinese descent.
Chen, a Chinatown, NYC native, was bright and full of personality. Banny Chen, his cousin, also remembers him fondly. At a family wedding, eight-year-old Danny Chen was the first on the dance floor, busting moves like no one was watching. “And eventually, people started joining one by one,” Banny Chen said to the Washington Post.
Raymond Dong, a friend of Chen’s, told NY Mag that he could fall asleep in class, have the teacher call on him to answer a question, and he’d still get the right answer. “You could do a lot better than join the Army,” he remembers telling Chen. “You’re so smart.”
Despite protests from friends, family members, and teachers, Chen wanted to join the army. “I want to live for myself,” he had told Dong, “not for someone else.”
Nine months after he had enlisted, he was dead.
His cousin, Banny Chen, recounted the night he learned of Chen’s death
“All they told me was that Danny is dead,” Banny Chen said. “I didn’t know how to respond, honestly, and right after I hung up the phone, I threw the phone across the hallway. That was my first reaction.”
Slowly, details started to emerge. At first, the family thought he had been killed by enemy fire; when they learned he committed suicide, they were shocked. Soon, they learned about the extensive abuses Chen’s fellow soldiers had put him through, such as being called “gook”, “chink”, “dragon lady”, “Jackie Chan”, and “soy sauce”, being assigned excessive guard duty to the point of exhaustion, and, perhaps most frustratingly, being ignored when he reported these instances to his higher ups.
One incident of abuse started after Chen, the only Chinese-American in his unit, forgot to bring his helmet and sufficient water for his shift. He was then ordered to crawl 100 meters over gravel while fellow soldiers threw rocks at him. Another occurred on September 27, 2011, when a sergeant physically removed him from his bed, dragging him approximately 15 meters to a shower, which resulted in bruises and cuts along his back.
When he reported this incident, his first lieutenant and staff sergeant and the supervisors decided not to document it.