New information, but no relief, for the family of the late Pvt. Danny Chen

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Margaret Chin and the family of Pvt. Danny Chen. (Dan Rosenblum)
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After months of trying to make sense of what they called “drips and drabs” of information about the troubled end of Pvt. Danny Chen, his family and supporters finally got some solid information.

On Wednesday, Chen’s family joined lawyers and community advocates at Fort Hamilton to hear findings from an Army investigation on Pvt. Danny Chen’s alleged suicide in October. Yesterday afternoon, they met again, in a tightly packed room at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in Manhattan’s Chinatown, to share the details with the media.

With Chen’s parents sitting on either side of her, Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, told reporters that Army investigators discovered that Chen had suffered weeks of abuse and assault before he apparently killed himself.

At one point, Councilwoman Margaret Chin of Manhattan handed the crying mother a tissue from her purse. The family members all kept their heads down, and spoke only briefly in response to a question about the trial for the soldiers accused of abusing Chen.

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“You would think after all these months, the pain would subside, but it seems like it’s increasing and it’s aggravating, so it’s not something that she’ll look forward to,” said a New York American Legion vice commander, Frank Gee, translating for Chen’s mother, Su Zhen Chen.

OuYang stressed all the information she knew came directly from what investigators told her and the family.

Chen, who enlisted in the Army last January, wrote in his diary about racial taunting while he trained in Georgia. But those taunts became much more serious in August, when he landed in Afghanistan. As the only Chinese-American member of his platoon, he was almost immediately singled out, according to OuYang.

“Danny was required to do exercises which quickly within a few days crossed over to abuse,” OuYang said. “Almost every day for the next six weeks, Danny was subjected to an excessive number of exercises.”

Soldiers threw rocks and yelled racial slurs at him, and forced Chen to simulate sitting while soldiers kneeled his legs. In one case, while pitching a new tent, Chen was told to yell instructions in Chinese, though there were no Chinese speakers in the unit.

On Sept. 27, a sergeant woke him and dragged him over 50 meters of gravel, bruising and cutting his back, and forced him to fix a hot water pump he had allegedly broken, OuYang said investigators told her.

She said Chen’s platoon sergeant and platoon leader were aware of the assault and didn’t report it.

Then on Oct. 3, Chen forgot his helmet and water for a guard-tower shift. He was told to go back to his trailer for the equipment and crawl back, as soldiers threw rocks. Shortly after 11 a.m. witnesses heard a gunshot in the tower. Chen was found alone, dead, with his rifle next to him.

Last month, the Army charged eight soldiers with hazing and abuse that led to Chen’s death. Five of them were charged with negligent homicide and manslaughter and two, Chen’s commanding officers, were charged with dereliction of duty.

Chen’s family wants a hearing held within the United States, to ensure transparency, and to give them a chance to observe the proceedings. Investigators told the family the proceedings would most likely be held in Alaska, where many of the troops were based before leaving for Afghanistan.

A preliminary hearing for a court marshall was initially scheduled for Jan. 6, but the suspects’ attorneys asked for a delay.

“I had the opportunity to talk to the mother right before the press conference,” Councilwoman Chin said to the media. “And what she expressed, as a mother to mother, that her heart felt so much pain and hurt from what the Army told them yesterday.”

Earlier this week, Chin co-sponsored a bill in the Council asking the Army to examine its recruitment strategies with an eye toward preventing hazing in the future.

OuYang said she has heard of other examples of Asian-Americans being hazed. At a recent meeting with Pentagon officials, she said, she questioned the effectiveness of current regulations in counteracting an entrenched culture of hazing.

“The meeting at the Pentagon was like night and day,” she said, “I felt we lived in two different worlds, and we started out that meeting by saying, ‘Look, we know you’ve got these great regs on paper, but your enforcement of these regs pales considerably in comparison to what we know is going on there.’”

Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, said the details of the case were a terrible reflection on the military’s attitude toward Asian-Americans: “Is this the message that you want to send to the American Community? That don’t you dare come in? Because we served. I was just also commenting on how people think we just arrived 150 years ago, but we served in your Civil War under assumed names and we died under assumed names. How much longer? This is, for godsakes, this is 2011. This is how you treat us?”

After the press conference, OuYang told lingering reporters she thought the tragedy could well dissuade other Asian-Americans from joining the military. She said she told Army representatives she couldn’t yet encourage potential recruits to sign up until the Army demonstrated meaningful reforms.

“That hurt a lot, because this is our country,” OuYang said. “We want to protect our country, but not at the risk of [the military] not protecting them ... and I said it hurts to say that, but it’s the 100 percent truth.“