CHINATOWN — Mourners packed a Mulberry Street funeral home Thursday to attend services for Pvt. Danny Chen, the Chinatown native soldier who died under mysterious circumstances while serving in Afghanistan earlier this month.
Chen, 19, who grew up in Chinatown and went to school on the Lower East Side, died on Oct. 3 in Kandahar Province, the U.S. military said last week.
Military criminal investigators are currently probing Chen’s death after his body was found in a guard tower with a gunshot wound to his head. They have not yet determined the cause of death, said a spokesman with the military’s criminal investigations command.
As military personnel joined Chen’s family and friends at the Wah Wing Sung funeral home prior to his burial upstate, many were left questioning the chain of events that led to Chen’s untimely death.
The Organization of Chinese in America’s New York office called for a swift and thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident, including the release of a full autopsy report and any information from witnesses.
OCA-NY president Elizabeth OuYang called Chen's death "suspicious," noting that his family told her that military officials informed his parents their son had been beaten by superior officers for not turning off the water at his base. She could not verify reports that he had been the subject of any racially motivated taunts.
“There has to be complete transparency and nothing less,” said OuYang, who attended the services to lend support to Chen’s family. “Who would want to send their son to the army when they’re being mistreated? They can’t trust the army to protect them within the confines of their own barracks.
"The government just needs to know that there are many people watching," she added. "If there was any misconduct toward Pvt. Chen, there needs to be accountability."
Local Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who also attended the services Thursday, echoed the call for a full probe into Chen’s death.
“We assured the family that as a community we will continue to press for a full investigation,” she said. “We want to get to the bottom of this.”
Those close to Chen’s family said his parents are still waiting for a full explanation as to how and why their son died.
"The parents are anxious to find out what happened," said family spokesman Frank Gee, who acted as a translator between military officials and Chen’s family, "so it won’t happen again to somebody else."
A close friend of Chen’s, who exchanged online messages with him only days before his death, said the soldier mentioned the fact that he was the only Asian-American in his unit.
“I do remember that he said something about being the only Asian guy there so he does feel sometimes like an outcast a little bit,” said Justin Lum, one of his best friends from Pace High School, where Chen was an honor student.
Chen’s former dean at Pace, who described him as a bright student, said she also wants answers as to what went wrong with his fellow troops in Afghanistan.
“You’re all supposed to be equal,” said Ramona Herring, who is now retired and attended Thursday’s services. “You don’t expect this to happen to anybody this young.”