Suicide of Danny Chen
May 26, 1992|
Manhattan, New York, United States
October 3, 2011 (aged 19)|
Kandahar province, Afghanistan
|Cause of death||Suicide|
|Other names||Chén Yǔhuī (陳宇暉)|
|Alma mater||Pace University High School|
|Occupation||United States Army|
Suzhen Chen (mother)|
Yan Tao Chen (father)
Danny Chen (simplified Chinese: 陈宇晖; traditional Chinese: 陳宇暉; pinyin: Chén Yǔhuī; May 26, 1992 – October 3, 2011) was an American U.S. Army soldier who served in Afghanistan in the early 21st century whose death resulted in a military investigation and charges against eight US soldiers, ultimately with four being court martialed.
The investigation found that Chen had been racially harassed and beaten by his fellow soldiers before his death on October 3, 2011.
Chen was born and raised in Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City, New York by parents who had immigrated from China. His father works as a chef and his mother as a seamstress. His parents came from Taishan, a coastal city in Guangdong province, China.
Chen P.S. 130 M graduated from Pace University High School in Manhattan in 2010, and received a full scholarship offer to Baruch College in Manhattan. However, Chen had other ambitions and joined the army in January 2011. He planned after his military service to return to New York City to serve with the New York City Police Department. His mother was unhappy about his choice, as she thought since he was a good student he could build a professional career. However, his father supported him.
After completing basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in April 2011, Pvt. Chen was assigned to C Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, which is based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. In August, he was deployed with his unit to Kandahar province in Afghanistan. They were stationed at Combat Outpost Palace, a forward operating post.
Death at base
"Three days after his death, a military official told Ms. Chen and her husband, Yan Tao Chen, that investigators had not yet determined whether the shot to the head was self-inflicted or fired by someone else.
But the official also revealed, the Chens said, that Private Chen had been subjected to physical abuse and ethnic slurs by superiors, who one night dragged him out of bed and across the floor when he failed to turn off a water heater after showering." The military did not provide much information to the parents while they were conducting their investigation.
But military investigators found that Chen was the target in Afghanistan of ethnic slurs and endured physical attacks at the hands of his fellow soldiers before his death. Chen was found to have been physically and verbally abused by his superiors, who appeared to single him out for being Chinese-American. This abuse occurred on a daily basis for six weeks before his death. As the only American soldier with Chinese ancestry in the unit, he was singled out, endured taunts including racial slurs such as "gook", "chink", "Jackie Chan", "Soy Sauce" and "dragon lady;" assigned excessive guard duty to the point of exhaustion, made to do push-ups while holding water in his mouth, and put in a "simulated sitting position" and kicked by other soldiers using their knees, among other abuses.
He was allegedly pelted with stones by fellow soldiers and forced to crawl across gravel shortly before his death. On September 27, 2011, a sergeant dragged Chen out of bed and over 15 metres (49 ft) of gravel, leaving visible bruises and cuts on Chen's back. Although the incident was reported to Chen's platoon sergeant and squad leader, it was not reported to superior officers. On October 3, 2011, the day he died, other soldiers forced him to crawl on gravel for over 100 metres (330 ft) while carrying equipment, as his comrades threw rocks at him.
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, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. They faced various charges, including assault, dereliction of duty, involuntary manslaughter, maltreatment, making false statements, negligent homicide, and reckless endangerment.
Following a series of Article 32 hearings on March 5, 2012, investigators dropped the most serious charge, involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison. Four of the eight soldiers were recommended for court-martial on the remaining charges, such as negligent homicide, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Subsequent trials were held at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Daniel Schwartz of Maryland, a 2009 graduate of West Point, was Chen's platoon leader and a First Lieutenant. Following a pretrial hearing at Kandahar Air Field, he was recommended for court-martial on February 12, 2012. He faced eight counts of dereliction of duty, including failure to promote "a climate in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of race" and "to prevent his subordinates from maltreating and engaging in racially abusive language." Furthermore, he stood "accused of failing to report two soldiers for consuming alcohol in violation of military rules and failing to report one of those soldiers for 'recklessly' detonating a hand grenade near their base."
Schwartz reached a plea deal with prosecutors in December 2012, after they consulted with Chen's parents about the issues. Schwartz did not face trial, and the charges against him were dropped. But he was dismissed from the Army, following a nonpublic Article 15 proceeding. Specifics regarding his punishment were not disclosed.
In July 2012, the court-martial started of 30-year-old Sgt. Adam Michael Holcomb of Youngstown, Ohio, among the four charged in Chen's death. He faced charges including negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, communicating a threat, assault, maltreatment of a subordinate, dereliction of duty, and violating a lawful general regulation, which combined carried a maximum prison sentence of up to 17 years and 9 months. He pleaded not guilty. The trial was conducted at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Private Degan Berhe testified that Chen had discussed suicide because of being harassed by Holcomb: "He told me to my face, sir, that he wanted to commit suicide because he was mistreated."
Holcomb was acquitted of being a cause of Chen's death and most of the other charges, but was convicted of assault. He was sentenced to thirty days in jail, demoted by one rank, and fined $1100 in forfeited pay for this offense. Members of the community, including Asian Americans and civil rights activists, were outraged by this light sentence.
In August 2012, it was reported that Spc. Ryan J. Offutt pleaded guilty to one count of hazing and two specifications of maltreatment. Offutt made a plea deal, resulting in charges of negligent homicide and reckless endangerment being dropped. Offutt had called Chen "chink," "gook," "fortune cookie," "squint eye", and "egg roll." He had kicked Chen and thrown rocks at him. He was sentenced to six months in prison. On appeal, the military court of appeals dismissed the six-month sentence and approved punishment only of reducing him in rank to E-1 and discharging him with a Bad Conduct Discharge.
In October 2012, it was reported that Spc. Travis Carden was demoted to private and received a "bad conduct discharge", after pleading guilty to charges which included attempting to impede an investigation, striking and pushing another soldier, and negligently discharging a pistol in a government van during the altercation. Carden had previously been found guilty of ordering Chen to perform demeaning physical tasks, and calling him racially disparaging names. He was sentenced to ten months in prison.
Andrew J. VanBockel
In Afghanistan, VanBockel was Chen's squad leader at Combat Outpost Palace. In November 2012, a military jury convicted Staff Sgt. VanBockel of hazing, dereliction of duty and maltreatment of a subordinate. He was demoted two ranks, reprimanded and forced to perform 60 days of hard labor, of which 45 days were credited due to pre-trial confinement.
Private Chen's death followed the suicide of Lance Corporal Harry Lew of the United States Marines, which took place in the same year.
The military has been criticized for other deaths of young men associated with hazing, and has conducted courts-martial of fellow military men, including non-coms and officers, who have been seen as permitting or encouraging abusive hazing, against the military's official policies. After the trials associated with Chen's death, the Army said it was working "to re-examine its policies against hazing and, officials said, double its efforts to eradicate the practice from its ranks."
Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), an aunt of Lew, introduced a bill, "Harry Lew Military Hazing Accountability and Prevention Act", which was passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017.
An American Soldier, an opera based on Chen's suicide and the subsequent courts-martial was premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2014. A revised expanded version had its world premiere in 2018 at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis festival.
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