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Pvt. Danny Chen, 1992–2011

He was 19 years old, a scrawny six-four, and wanted nothing more than to join the Army. Just like so many other young men. But very few from Chinatown.

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Private Chen’s bedroom on January 5.  

On the evening of October 3, 2011, Su Zhen Chen heard a knock at the door. In the hallway outside her apartment on Avenue D stood three soldiers. Su Zhen doesn’t speak English, and none of the men spoke Taishanese. She couldn’t understand what they were telling her, but figured it must have something to do with her 19-year-old son, Danny, an Army private stationed in Afghanistan. She called her brother in Staten Island, and he handed the phone to his wife, Melissa, who speaks fluent English.

The soldier on the other end of the line asked her who she was, then quickly got to the point: “Can you tell Danny’s parents that Danny died?” Danny had been on guard duty, the soldier told his aunt, and had been found with a gunshot to his head. “He’s dead,” he said. “Can you tell his mother that?”

Melissa turned to her husband. “What am I supposed to say?”

“Just say whatever you heard.”

So she did, telling Danny’s mother, “They said he died. He had a gunshot to his head.”

At first, Danny’s mother did not seem to understand. “Okay,” she said. “He has a gunshot to his head. Is he okay?”

“No,” Melissa said. “He’s dead.”

Slowly, the news sunk in. In Staten Island, on the other end of the phone line, Su Zhen’s relatives could hear the sound of a long, tortured scream.

Danny’s mother had never wanted him to become a soldier. If it had been up to her, after high school he would have attended a college close to home and grown up to be something else, something safer. Maybe a pharmacist. Danny was her only child, born in 1992, just five years after she’d immigrated to New York City from the Taishan region of China and three years after she brought over her husband. Growing up in Chinatown, Danny had always seemed an exemplary son: obedient, studious, devoted. And very attached to his mother. While Danny’s father, Yan Tao Chen, had put in ten-hour days working in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants, his mother had been the one who raised him.

She didn’t want to see him join the Army, and made it known. Danny told his best friend, Raymond Dong, that he feared his mother might disown him if he enlisted, so he signed up without telling her first. But Raymond agreed with Su Zhen; he too thought Danny would be better off sticking around New York and earning a degree, maybe at Baruch College, where he’d taken prep courses the summer after high school. “You could do a lot better than join the Army,” he told Danny. “You’re so smart.” It was true: During his senior year, Danny would fall asleep in math class, wake up when the teacher called on him, and still give the right answer.

But in a community of immigrant strivers, Danny wanted something different for himself. During his senior year, while everyone else was polishing their college applications, he was dreaming about the Army. Many Chinese-American families with just one son won’t let him join the military, since sons are so highly prized in their culture. But this did not deter Danny. “I want to live for myself,” he told Raymond, “not for someone else.”

When asked about his decision to enlist, his friends and relatives offer up myriad explanations: He planned to join the NYPD and thought the Army would be good training; he wanted a steady income to help support his parents; he thought college would be boring; he loved action and adventure, and wanted more of it in his own life; he was anxious to test himself and prove his mettle. Perhaps he was hoping to strike out on his own, to put some distance between himself and his parents. But one fact looms over all the ­others: He joined the Army because he wanted to, not because he needed to, and knowing all the while that he was likely to be catapulted into a combat zone. In fact, he was eager to get there. “hooah for leaving,” he wrote in his diary on his way to basic training last January. “Excited as heck.”

Nine months later, he was found dead in Afghanistan of what the Army has described as “an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.” Since Danny Chen’s death, details of his story have slowly emerged, relayed by Army officials to his family. A group of his superiors allegedly tormented Chen on an almost daily basis over the course of about six weeks in Afghanistan last fall. They singled him out, their only Chinese-American soldier, and spit racial slurs at him: “gook,” “chink,” “dragon lady.” They forced him to do sprints while carrying a sandbag. They ordered him to crawl along gravel-covered ground while they flung rocks at him. And one day, when his unit was assembling a tent, he was forced to wear a green hard-hat and shout out instructions to his fellow soldiers in Chinese.


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