One of the most high-profile cases of the past year involved Harry Lew, a 21-year-old lance corporal in the Marines, who was found asleep on guard duty in Afghanistan one night last April. It was the fourth time. After a sergeant announced over the radio that “peers should correct peers,” his fellow lance corporals ordered him to do push-ups, then stomped on his back and legs if he didn’t do them right; poured sand in his mouth; punched him in the back of his helmet; and forced him to dig a chest-deep foxhole. At 3:43 a.m., while crouching in the foxhole, he placed the muzzle of his M249 inside his mouth and pulled the trigger.
In the months since Chen died, Harry Lew’s story has come up often as an example of how bad things can get for Asian-Americans in the military. But a closer parallel to how Chen was treated may be the story of 20-year-old Brushaun Anderson, one of the few African-American soldiers in a unit deployed in Iraq. A report in Stars and Stripes detailed how a group of superiors singled him out: overpunishing him for even the smallest mistakes; ordering him to put on his body armor and do extreme physical exercises; calling him “dirty” and forcing him to wear a plastic trash bag. His tour of duty ended in 2010, inside a portable toilet in Iraq, when he fired a bullet into his forehead.
Danny Chen turned 19 years old at Fort Wainwright in Alaska, a new member of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, known as the “Arctic Wolves.” He had arrived in mid-May, shortly after some 4,000 soldiers from Fort Wainwright had deployed to Afghanistan. For those soldiers left behind, life felt like a waiting game; everyone knew it was only a matter of time until they, too, would be deployed. Some looked forward to shipping out with a mix of anxiety, anticipation, and dread. Chen couldn’t wait.
He lived in the barracks, but spent most of his free time at the rental house off-post in Fairbanks where Bryan Johnson, a friend from basic training, lived with his wife, Mary. The Johnsons’ house was a favorite hangout; six or seven friends would drop by on weekday nights, ten on weekends. To pass the hours, the soldiers would play Call of Duty, toss a ball around, watch TV, swap jokes.
Chen was the youngest of the group and more innocent. When his friends learned he’d never gotten drunk before, they took it upon themselves to teach him the joys of beer pong—and keg stands. Chen was so tall that it took three guys to hoist his legs over his head, so he could gulp from the tap upside down. “He did pretty good for his first keg stand,” Mary recalls.
Chen and Johnson had expected to deploy to Afghanistan in July, but at the last moment they were told they wouldn’t be shipping out just yet. The news enraged them: Soon they were stomping around the house in frustration. “They were throwing a temper tantrum,” Mary says. Chen sent a text to his best friend in New York. “Holy fuck I got bumped off the flight, I go in August now … fml,” he wrote, using the acronym for “fuck my life.”
“All the weaker people have left,” Chen wrote. “Now I’m the weakest one left.”
Phone calls and e-mails are prohibited during most of basic training, so soldiers take to letter writing, often for the first time in their lives. By the time Danny Chen had arrived in Alaska, however, he’d stopped writing letters, since he could call home every day. But communications with his family dried up again once he reached Afghanistan on August 13. From there, he could only phone home every few weeks.
When he got access to the Internet, he’d send Facebook messages to his cousin Banny, who would relay messages to his parents. On August 25, Banny wrote: “Your mom wants to know where you specifically are and if you can ever call back. Also what you are doing there, if it’s hard work.” The response from Danny came two days later: “Tell her that no shit its hard work, but its what I signed up for.”
Near the end of August, he was sent to a combat outpost in Kandahar Province, which had been dubbed “The Palace” by the Canadian troops who had been there previously. It was anything but. A Canadian news agency later described this part of the country as “a boiling cauldron of never-ending roadside bombs, booby traps, and ambushes that drove even the best right up to the edge.” The last two Canadian casualties there were suspected suicides.
When he arrived, Chen was at the bottom of the social hierarchy: a newcomer to his unit, a lowly private, still just a teenager, in a combat zone for the first time. And the only Chinese-American in his platoon. In a meeting with Chen’s parents on January 4, Army officials said that his superiors had considered him not fit enough when he arrived, and singled him out for excessive physical exercise: push-ups, flutter-kicks, sit-ups, sprints done while carrying a sandbag. Such punishments resemble the “smokings” that drill sergeants mete out at basic training to correct mistakes. But, in Chen’s case, it wasn’t long before this campaign of “corrective training” escalated into sheer brutality.