The letters he sent home over the next two months offered a running commentary on basic training and at times read like letters from camp:
“I’ve taken 6 showers since I got here, 2 of which are 30 second ones. If this letter stinks … o well.”
“Everyone here likes country music … Lots of people here are from the south too so they know every song. Weird as hell to me.”
“We call each other by our last names here. I might not even respond to Danny anymore.”
“Random Facts—we running out of toilet paper, TP is like money here.”
“I might come back using curses like crazy, everyone here even the Drill Seargants say fuck like every sentence.”
“In the showers … people bust out singing songs. Tonight they took their waterproof headlights and started dancing and singing. Weird as fuck but it was fun.”
Unlike his fellow recruits, Chen didn’t have to worry about using expletives in his letters, since he knew his parents would never read them. They couldn’t read English, and, like many first-generation Chinese-Americans, he couldn’t write in Chinese. His parents would have to enlist a relative to translate, and he knew his curses would be edited out. Besides, it felt great to sound like a soldier.
And not just sound like one. For Chen, one of the Army’s appeals was the chance to actually fire real weapons. No more just playing shooter video games in his bedroom. “I been shooting the rifle,” he wrote home in January. “It’s dam awesome.” Later, he added: “by far the best weapon I shot is the .50 caliber … They didn’t let us shoot real ones but the feel was the same. That .50 Cal can rip a man in half as said by the Sergeants … it’s like some call of duty shit.”
When he wrote about his family, he could be just as exuberant. “Happy Valentines Day Mom!” he wrote in February. “Dad should have gotten her roses, if he didn’t, tell him to, my request from Basic T since I can’t get her anything. Still missing both of you.”
Two-thirds of the way through camp, as the training got more strenuous, relations in his platoon became increasingly tense. “People here are getting more angry now,” Chen wrote home. “There have been a shit ton of fights, not fully physical, but more just pushing.” Chen himself didn’t like to brawl, and when he did get into a fight with his bunkmate, there was no doubt who prevailed: “got my ass handed to me,” Chen wrote in his diary. “Didn’t even stand a chance.”
Inevitably, basic training produced dropouts. By mid-March, many of the recruits Chen had started with were gone, unable to keep up. “People here are leaving left and right now, everyone is getting stress fractures and broken legs,” he wrote. “All of the weaker people have either left or gone home for 30 days to heal. Now I’m the weakest one left.”
Chen stood out in another way, too. “Everyone knows me because I just noticed, I’m the only chinese guy in the platoon,” he wrote home. His fellow recruits called him Chen Chen, Jackie Chan, and Ling Ling. But, he added, “Don’t worry, no one picks on me … I’m the skinniest guy and weigh the least here but … people respect me for not quitting.”
Four weeks later, the Asian jokes hadn’t stopped. “They ask if I’m from China like a few times day,” he wrote. “They also call out my name (chen) in a goat like voice sometimes for no reason. No idea how it started but now it’s just best to ignore it. I still respond though to amuse them. People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time, I’m running out of jokes to come back at them.”
Chen had no friends or relatives in the Army before he joined, so he had no firsthand information about how tough it can be for Asians in the military. Anyone who stands out as different—because of his race or ethnicity, because he’s quiet and shy, because he’s weaker than the others—can find himself singled out and targeted. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting picked on; sometimes it takes the form of physical abuse. Many former soldiers say that, in part because of low enrollment and in part because of enduring prejudice, the military is especially tough on its Asian soldiers. And in the aftermath of his death, Chen has come to represent the plight of the Asian-American soldier, his family and a local advocacy group called OCA-NY joining forces to propel his story into the national press in an effort to end racism and hazing in the military.