The Army recently announced that it was charging eight soldiers—an officer and seven enlisted men—in connection with Danny Chen’s death. Five of the eight have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, and the coming court-martial promises a fuller picture of the harrowing abuse Chen endured. But even the basic details are enough to terrify: What could be worse than being stuck at a remote outpost, in the middle of a combat zone, tormented by your superiors, the very same people who are supposed to be looking out for you? And why did a nice, smart kid from Chinatown, who’d always shied from conflict and confrontation, seek out an environment ruled by the laws of aggression?
Danny Chen was born in New York City, but he couldn’t speak much English before starting Chinatown Head Start in the fall of 1996. Mostly he spoke Taishanese—his parents’ Chinese dialect. The Head Start program was filled with the children of restaurant and garment-factory workers, and there was nothing unusual about being unable to speak English, even if you’d spent your whole life in America.
Compared with his peers, Danny had an advantage. “He had such a loving mom,” says Renny Fong, who taught him in pre-K and kindergarten. Later, as Danny grew up, a friend had another name for it: “mama’s boy.” While other kids were raised by grandparents, with both parents working long hours, Danny had a mother who dropped him off and picked him up every day, who went on school trips and made sure he stayed focused. By the time he reached first grade, Danny was not only fluent in English, he’d won a slot in the school’s gifted program.
The family lived in an Elizabeth Street apartment so tiny that the stove and fridge occupied a corner of the living room. There was only one bedroom, and for ten years Danny slept in a bed just a few inches from his parents. He was not typically one to complain, but in middle school he made a sign and posted it on the bedroom wall: “I want a room!” Not long after, his parents got him one, moving out of Chinatown to find it. The new place was more spacious, with two bedrooms and a separate kitchen, but its location was much less safe: in a housing project on Avenue D.
“I want to live for myself,” Chen said. “Not for someone else.”
Twice over the next few years Danny was set upon by other kids in the neighborhood. Once they stole his cell phone; he called home from a subway station, and when his father came to retrieve him, he found Danny so shaken up that he was in a huddle, his arms wrapped around himself. Another time, a group of boys tried to rob him, but he got away, called the cops, and drove around with them to track down his assailants. When he discovered how young they were, he declined to press charges, saying he worried that a conviction might harm their futures.
In middle school at M.S. 131 on Hester Street, he was a gentle kid, his friend Jing Mei Huang recalls, and would often go straight home from school to do his homework. He tried to avoid confrontation, though one day during gym class he accidentally hit a girl with a ball, enraging her boyfriend so much that he started kicking Danny. “Danny didn’t flinch at all,” Huang recalls. “He just kept going to his locker.” When a friend asked him later why he didn’t fight back, he just said: “Let it go.”
In high school, things began to change. He started lifting weights, spending every afternoon at the Y on Houston Street with his friend Raymond Dong. Danny wasn’t very athletic, but he was determined to try to put some muscle on his skinny frame. He didn’t have any girlfriends in high school—“He was really, really shy,” says a friend—and when he wasn’t working out, Danny would pass the hours playing handball and video games like Call of Duty. Or eating. Most days, he and Raymond would eat all afternoon—one meal right after school, then another after they worked out, then home for dinner. But Danny couldn’t seem to gain any weight. By the end of high school, he was six foot four and towered over his friend, but he still looked as thin as a feather.
The letters home from basic training were handwritten on Army-issued stationery, adorned with the boldfaced motto: army strong. “Dear Mom and Dad,” Chen wrote in January 2011. “I’m suffering here but it’s not too bad so far.” He was then in week two at Fort Benning, with seven more weeks to go. While his friends were sitting in college classrooms back in New York—Dong was at St. John’s, Huang was enrolled at St. Francis—Chen was limping around training camp, a giant blister on his foot. But he had no regrets. “I love this place,” he wrote.