Season 2 True Crime

Danny Chen – The Breaking Point

Nikki and Kalai discuss the suicide of Danny Chen, a case that exposes racism inside the US military. It also shines a light on how power tripping and hazing are affecting the mental health of those that want to serve their country.

Sources: NBC News, New York Times, New York Magazine, Wikipedia

Danny Chen wanted to serve his country.

Danny Chen was an American US Army soldier who served in Afghanistan in the early 21st century. The investigation found that Chen had been racially harassed, teased, bullied, and mercilessly beaten by his fellow soldiers before his death on October 3, 2011.

And he, unfortunately, took his own life in Afghanistan.

Danny Chen was born May 26, 1992, and raised in Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City by parents who had immigrated from Mainland China. 

Both his parents didn’t speak English or read in English and even until now they’re still not fluent in English which is I find that to be really brave coz you migrate to another country without speaking or understanding a single word is hard as fuck and this would resonate with a lot of immigrants in the US who go there to seek asylum and you know have a better life.

His father works as a chef and his mother as a seamstress. His parents came from Taishan, a coastal city in Guangdong province, China.

Danny himself, despite being born and raised in America, didn’t speak English at first until he started attending school.

His pre-K and kindergarten teacher Renny Fong said that Compared with his peers, Danny had an advantage coz He had such a loving mom,”

Danny himself was also obedient, studious, and he too very attached to his mother that his friends would refer to him as a mama’s boy

Danny’s mom made sure that she was the one who dropped him off and she was also the one who 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, but he’d also won a slot in the school’s gifted program.

And they loved him so much to him one, moving out of Chinatown to find it. The new place was more spacious, with two bedrooms and a separate kitchen.

And he deserved it.

He was a very nice kid,

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.

when he was in middle school he accidentally hit a girl with a ball, and it enraging the girl’s boyfriend so much that he started kicking Danny. “Danny didn’t flinch at all,” and according to his friend Jing-Mei Huang “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.”

he was also a good student. According to his classmate, Danny would fall asleep in math class, wake up when the teacher called on him, and still give the right answer.

He was even granted a full scholarship in Baruch College.

This was why when he told his best friend, Raymond Dong that he wanted to join the army, his best friend thought Danny would be better off sticking around New York and earning a degree, maybe at Baruch College, where he’d taken prep courses the summer after high school. “

Raymond even told him You could do a lot better than join the Army,” he told Danny. “You’re so smart.” 

“I want to live for myself,” he told Raymond, “not for someone else.”

His mom also didn’t want Danny to join the Army and made it known. Danny told his best friend, Raymond that he feared his mother might disown him if he enlisted, so he signed up without telling her first.

He planned to join the NYPD and thought the Army would be good training; he wanted a steady income to help support his parents.

He knew what he wanted and it was to join the army and he didn’t join the army because he needed to join, he joins because he was kind of looking for adventure.

And he wrote in his diary on his way to basic training last January. “Excited as heck.”

And when you’re young and you know you don’t have a lot of money and you want adventure, the easiest way would be the military.

One of the first few letters that he sent to his parents were Dear Mom and Dad,” Chen wrote in January 2011. “I’m suffering here but it’s not too bad so far.”

He also said in one of his letters I love this place,”

And it wasn’t all bad at the beginning of Danny’s training. In his letters, everything was new to him and he kinda enjoyed it despite the hard training

But because Danny was Asian-American, he did stand out

In his letters, he said “Everyone knows me because I just noticed, I’m the only Chinese guy in the platoon,”

He also said that His fellow recruits would call him Chen Chen, Jackie Chan, and Ling Ling.

But despite what he was facing, he still wrote “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.”

Then in another letter, he wrote four weeks later, he said “They ask if I’m from China like a few times day,”

“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.”

But soon in mid-March, it was starting to get hard, many of the recruits that Danny had started with dropped out

And in his letter, he said “People here are leaving left and right now, everyone is getting stress fractures and broken legs,”

 “All of the weaker people have either left or gone home for 30 days to heal. Now I’m the weakest one left.”

He eventually completed his basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia in April 2011, 

In August, he was deployed with his unit to Kandahar Province in Afghanistan in a place known as the Palace

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.”

When he arrived, Chen was at the bottom of the social hierarchy:

He was a newcomer, a teenage,r and was Chinese American

His superiors had considered him not fit enough when he arrived, and coz of that they forced excessive physical exercise: push-ups, flutter-kicks, sit-ups while carrying a sandbag

Danny was allegedly harassed and humiliated almost every day and they would constantly use racial slurs. They forced him to do push-ups with a mouthful of water, refusing to let him swallow or spit any out.

And, on September 27, a sergeant allegedly yanked him out of bed and dragged him across about 50 yards of gravel toward a shower trailer as punishment for forgetting to turn off the water pump. He endured bruises and cuts on his back.

The leader of his platoon found out about this incident, he never reported it even tho they are required to report abuse

On the morning of October 3, Danny was assigned to report for guard duty at 7:30 a.m.

He realized he’d forgotten his helmet when he got to that and didn’t have enough water.

A superior sent him back to the trailer to get what he needed,

And he was then allegedly forced to crawl, with all his equipment, across 100 meters of gravel to the tower and while he was on the ground, rocks were thrown at him by his supervisors. And once he reached the tower, a superior grabbed him by his body armor and dragged him up the steps.

The soldier he was relieving asked him if he was okay. “No sweat,” Chen answered. The ­other soldier left. At 11:13, from inside the tower, they heard a gunshot

If you’re asking why didn’t Danny just quit?

Investigation and legal consequences

On December 21, 2011, the US Army charged eight soldiers with various crimes relating to Chen’s death:

1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz

Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas

Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel

Sgt. Travis F. Carden

Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb

Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst

Spc. Thomas P. Curtis

Spc. Ryan J. Offutt

All the defendants belonged to C Company, 3rd Battalion, 21 Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. They faced various charges, including assault, bullying, dereliction of duty, involuntary manslaughter, maltreatment, making false statements, negligent homicide, and reckless endangerment.

None of these people ever served time in prison, some of them were just demoted and some of them were forced to do hard labor, that’s it. Some were just asked to pay a fine

According to Danny’s cousin, Banny Chen, his thoughts also turn to the soldiers who were charged in connection with his cousin’s death — and how it’s unjust, he said, that some were allowed to remain in the military.“But at this point,” he added, “justice for me would be if Danny’s story could be told more and more so that this could never happen again.”

Unfortunately, this shit still happens and it isn’t just Asian-Americans. People of color get abused, women get abused and it’s just swept under the rug.

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. 

In 2014 an opera titled An American Soldier, based on Chen’s suicide and the subsequent courts-martial premiered. A revised expanded version had its world premiere in 2018 at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis festival and made to New York Times best plays for 2018.

A stretch of Elizabeth Street in Chinatown, Manhattan is now also designated as Private Danny Chen Way in 2014

Danny Chen

Danny Chen and his family

One of Danny’s supervisors

The street named after Danny Chen

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