By Patrick Hedlund, Serena Solomon and Tuan Nguyen
CHINATOWN — The grieving parents of Army Pvt. Danny Chen, a Chinatown native who died while serving in Afghanistan, called for justice in their son's death Wednesday, hours after the military announced eight of his fellow soldiers were being charged in connection to his death.
Chen, 19, who grew up in Chinatown and the East Village before he was deployed, was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head inside a guard tower in Kandahar Province on Oct. 3, military investigators in Afghanistan announced Wednesday.
The eight soldiers were hit with charges ranging from negligent homicide and assault to making false statements in Chen's death, which mobilized local politicians and advocacy organizations to press for a fully transparent investigation.
Military officials previously informed Chen’s parents that superior officers had beaten him prior to his death for failing to turn off the hot water at his base. His family also said that the teen was subject to racially motivated taunts by fellow officers.
"We are cautiously optimistic about today’s news," said Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York Organization of Chinese Americans, during a press conference at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association on Mott Street Wednesday.
"The people responsible for his death must not only be charged, but they must be found guilty of killing him. We will be monitoring these court-martials until their justice is served."
Chen's mother, Su Zhen Chen, said tearfully through a translator that she was "relieved to learn that the Army is taking this seriously" and "hopes that the truth will come out," so that "what happened will not be repeated again."
Her voice quivering as she spoke, Chen's mother was at a loss in describing the soldiers' treatment of her son.
"He had lots of friends," said City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, translating for the mother. "She could not understand why anyone in the Army would do this to him."
The mother added that she was resistant to Chen joining the military, but let him go because he was 18 and his father was supportive.
"Let's not forget Danny was their only child," Chin said.
Chin and Rep. Nydia Velazquez both said the charges were only the beginning of what should result in prosecutions of the soliders involved.
"Today is a bittersweet day for the Asian American community, for the minority community in this country," Velazquez said. "We love to talk about having a more perfect union. Today we are demonstrating that."
Chin called on the military to reform its policies regarding the recruitment and treatment of soldiers, as well as the training of superior officers.
"We cannot allow this to happen to our sons and daughters," she said. "As Asian Americans, this is our country and we want to serve."
OuYang also disputed the military's assertion that Chen died of an apparent suicide, saying that advocates still want more evidence.
"We are not saying yes or no. We want to see all the reports," she said. "We are not convinced totally [it was suicide]. What they did to him caused his death."
OuYang added that she and Chen's parents would meet with Army officials in New York on Jan. 4, and that they hope to get more details of the investigation then, including a full autopsy report and Chen's complete diary from his time in Afghanistan.
She said the military has already completed its probe of Chen's commanding officer, and expects some punishment to be handed down.
"We have been given dribs and and drabs [of information], and we hope to get full disclosure on January 4th," OuYang said. "We do expect the commanding officer to receive some sort of discipline."