CITY HALL — Members of the City Council called on the Department of Defense to mandate anti-discrimination training during an emotional hearing Friday in the wake of the tragic death of Army Pvt. Danny Chen.
Chen's grieving parents, Su Zhen and Yan Tao Chen, sat quietly wiping away tears surrounded by other members of their family, as witnesses described the abuse the 19-year-old allegedly experienced while serving in Afghanistan.
Chen, who grew up in Chinatown and the East Village, was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound inside a guard tower in Kandahar Province Oct. 3, military officials said.
He was subjected to ridicule and physical abuse by fellow soldiers and superiors in part because of his Chinese ethnicity, advocates and Chen's family said, based on conversations with military officials.
Chen was the alleged victim of racial taunts, including being called “gook,” “chink,” and “dragon lady,” and subjected to daily physical abuse by fellow soldiers, who pelted him with rocks and ordered him to give instructions in Chinese, said Kwong Eng, a board member of the Organization of Chinese Americans, which has been advocating on behalf of the Chen family.
In one incident, Eng said, Chen was dragged 50 meters over a gravel floor, leaving bruises on his back. Others times, he was subjected to grueling workout routines, added Eng, who noted that supervisors were not only aware of the abuse but ordered it themselves.
Eight of Chen’s fellow soldiers were originally charged in connection to his death for crimes ranging from negligent homicide and assault to making false statements. Investigators have since recommended negligent homicide charges for one of the men, Spc. Ryan Offut, though the manslaughter charges he faced have been droped.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who co-sponsored the legislation calling on the Department of Defense to mandate comprehensive diversity, anti-discrimination and harassment training, said the abuse amounted to “torture” of a soldier at the hands of those he served with.
“It is impossible for any of us to imagine the pain of losing an only child. But then to lose an only child under circumstances as tragic and horrible as this,” she said, makes it all the worse.
“Private Chin’s death clearly appears to have been the result of racially charged harassment and bullying,” Quinn said, arguing that while the military may have policies against discrimination, the rules are meaningless if not enforced.
City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown and accompanied the family to a recent meeting with Pentagon officials about Chen's death, commended his family for drawing attention to the issue and speaking out.
“Danny’s experience was not an isolated one,” said Chin, the lead sponsor of the legislation, who added that others from the community have also been coming forward saying they experienced harassment in the military.
Banny Chen, Danny’s cousin, testified in front of the Council, telling members about Danny’s dreams of becoming a police officer after leaving the military.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what Danny went through,” he said, earlier beseeching the Council to take action. “Please don’t let Danny’s death be in vain.”
One man, John Yang, who wore a pilot’s uniform, said he came to the hearing to testify about the “abuse, discrimination and harassment” he experienced as a soldier.
But when councilmembers said they didn’t have the legal authority to provide any sort of immunity, he changed his mind.
“Let’s just say I survived,” he said.
The Council measure, which has been signed by nearly 50 members, is expected to pass.