CHINATOWN — The grief-stricken parents of a Army soldier who died under mysterious circumstances while serving in Afghanistan last month joined local leaders Tuesday to ramp up their call for the military to release more information regarding the teenager’s death.
The mother and father of Pvt. Danny Chen, 19, who attended high school on Lower East Side before being deployed, were recently provided some of their son’s personal items from the military, including three pages purportedly taken from his journal.
Chen’s parents, mother Su Zhen Chen and father Yan Tao Chen, who do not speak English, said through a translator Tuesday that they do not believe that their son committed suicide, after military investigators said he was found with gunshot wound to the head inside a guard tower in Kandahar Province on Oct. 3.
Chen’s cause of death has still yet to be determined, investigators noted, but many have questioned the chain of events that led to the tragedy.
Speaking on behalf of Chen’s family, Elizabeth OuYang, president of the Organization of Chinese Americans-New York, explained that the military handed over three pages from the soldier’s journal referencing Chen’s duties at the Army base, including tending to a hot water heater.
Military officials previously informed Chen’s parents that superior officers had beaten him prior to his death for not turning off the hot water, OuYang said, though news reports of Chen being subject to racially motivated taunts have not been confirmed.
OuYang, who has not seen the journal pages herself, said that Chen’s reference to the hot water heater does not provide enough context to indicate how it may have contributed to any alleged punishment by superiors or Chen’s subsequent death.
But the OCA-NY president did question why military personnel asked for an example of Chen’s handwriting prior to releasing the undated journal pages, which military officials explained are the only writings relevant to the case, OuYang said.
She also wondered why the journal entries appeared as bullet points instead of paragraphs, when Chen tended to write in the latter style, and why the entries weren’t as personal as his letters home read.
“We are in it for the long haul,” OuYang added, after requesting a meeting with the Secretary with the Army on Oct. 18 to discuss the case.
A return letter from Army Secretary John M. McHugh, provided by OCA-NY, declined the invitation to meet due to the ongoing investigation.
“While I am unable to honor your request, you have my personal assurance that the Army will continue to work closely with Private Chen’s family to ensure they have the information they need, and that the Army will work diligently to answer their questions and address their concerns,” the letter stated.
A spokesperson from the Army’s public affairs office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. A spokesman for the military’s Criminal Investigations Command said Tuesday that the investigation is ongoing and could not speculate on an approximate date when it will conclude.
Still, local advocates and elected officials are pressing for a swift and transparent investigation, as well as a meeting between the family and high-ranking military officials and the release of Chen’s full autopsy report.
"I will continue to put pressure on the inspector general of the Army," said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who also wrote a letter to the Department of Defense seeking "immediate action" on the case.
"We need answers, and we need answers now," she said.
Advocates also wanted information regarding any possible discrimination or mistreatment of Chen, as well as assurances from the military that those actions will not be tolerated.
“As Asian Americans, we are American,” said City Councilwoman Margaret Chin at the press conference. “We want to know, what is the policy of the Army to treat every single soldier as equal, as American.”
OuYang said that the Army has not denied that Chen was “hazed” by fellow soldiers, citing alleged injuries found on his back, and called for the return of all of his personal items to the family, including his computer, cell phone, the remaining portions of his diary and his clothing.
A translator for the soldier’s parents said after the press conference that Chen asked them to send him some of his favorite foods less than a week before he died. That, plus a phone call he made just days before his death indicating that everything was fine, has led Chen’s parents to believe he could not have committed suicide.
“We will continue to fight until the truth comes out,” Velazquez added, after consoling Chen’s tearful mother. “[The Army] must assure the family that they are proactively… taking measures and steps so that this tragedy never happens again.”