Reporting from New York
In October, Danny Chen, a U.S. Army private from New York City, was found dead in a guard tower in southern Afghanistan; the official statement said he had suffered “an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
On Wednesday, the Army announced that eight fellow soldiers had been charged in connection with the 19-year-old private’s death — and a spokeswoman for the Chen family expressed doubts that Chen’s death was actually a suicide.
“That’s the Army’s version,” said Elizabeth OuYang of the Organization of Chinese Americans. She spoke at a news conference with Chen’s mother, Su Zhen Chen, standing beside her, weeping for her only child. “We are not convinced,” OuYang said of the military’s suicide report.
No matter who fired the fatal bullet, she said, the death amounted to murder because of bullying that Chen allegedly suffered at the hands of fellow soldiers.
“Danny Chen died after this mistreatment. Whether it was suicide or homicide, what they did to him caused his death,” OuYang said of the accused.
The eight men face charges ranging from negligent homicide to assault and dereliction of duty. All served with Chen in the 1st Stryker Combat Team of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division in southern Afghanistan; they’re being held at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.
A military statement did not provide details of the alleged crimes but said more information would be released “as it becomes available.”
The charges came after New York’s Asian American community rallied around Chen’s immigrant parents upon learning that he had told relatives of ethnic taunts and physical abuse while in Afghanistan.
OuYang read from a message that family members said Chen had written from Afghanistan. “They [other soldiers] ask me if I’m from China a few times a day. They also called out my name ‘Chen’ in a goat-like voice sometimes for no reason,” the message said in part.
“I’m running out of jokes to respond back to them,” Chen wrote, according to OuYang.
His relatives said that Chen told them of being pelted with rocks and forced to hold liquid in his mouth while being hung upside down. But OuYang said there were no signs that Chen was suicidal and that up to a week before his death, he sent upbeat messages from his Facebook account. “He was laughing,” she said.
The Pentagon called Chen’s death a “tragic incident,” and the Associated Press quoted spokesman Capt. John Kirby as rejecting allegations of hazing. “We treat each other with dignity and respect. That’s what this uniform requires,” Kirby said. “And when we don’t, there is a justice system in place to deal with it. And that’s what we’re seeing here in the case of Pvt. Chen.”
Through a translator, Su Zhen Chen described her son as a good and popular student who had told her when he was 18 years old that he wanted to enlist in the Army. Chen said she did not want him to go. But his father, Yan Tao, reasoned that his son was an adult and had to make his own decisions.
In August, three enlisted Marines were criminally charged with mistreating a fellow Marine from California in the hours before he committed suicide in Afghanistan. The three faced accusations including “wrongfully abusing, humiliating and demeaning” Lance Cpl. Harry Lew of Santa Clara. Lew shot himself to death April 3.