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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | A criminal investigation is underway to trace the cause of the mysterious death of 19-year-old U.S. Army Private Danny Chen, whose body was found on Oct. 3 in a guard tower in Kandahar, Afghanistan with a gunshot wound to the head.
The fatality was not combat related, according to U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command Spokesperson Christopher Grey. Speculations are therefore swirling that Chen, who was born and raised on the Lower East Side, was either shot by a fellow officer or that he committed suicide. Grey refused to comment on either speculation.
“We’re conducting a very thorough and in-depth investigation into Private Chen’s death,” Grey said. “It would be premature to discuss anything that happened, [in order] to protect the case.”
Local elected officials and community organizations are now demanding a timely and comprehensive study of Chen’s death, which they believe might correlate with racial harassment the private purportedly experienced while overseas.
“We want to know the truth of what happened to Danny Chen. No lies, no cover-ups, just the truth,” said Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York branch of the Organization of Chinese Americans at an Oct. 17 press conference held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association offices. Principals from P.S. 130, M.S. 131 and Pace High School, where Chen went to school, attended the event to show their solidarity.
“Anyone found culpable for the death of Private Danny Chen must be held accountable,” said OuYang.
The community representatives and politicians are requesting a meeting with U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh and Department of Defense Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell to discuss the growing trend of race-related crimes in the Army.
“All these relatives, I remember at the funeral, surrounded me and said, ‘Margaret, we demand answers,’” said Councilmember Margaret Chin. “If there was any wrongdoing or any mistreatment of Danny, we want to know.”
Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 1,100 soldiers have committed suicide, including 301 last year alone, according to U.S. Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez.
“Danny wasn’t supposed to die this way,” said Velazquez. “If anything, his death should not be in vain, and we could use this occasion to take any measure that will provide safety and security for our sons and daughters [in the military].”
Army officials reportedly informed Chen’s parents that a group of fellow soldiers bullied him and that he was dragged out of bed and assaulted on one ocassion because he neglected to shut off a hot water heater in the soldier’s living quarters. Bruises covered the back of Chen’s dead body, the officials told his parents, but it is unclear if the contusions were connected to this particular assault.
Chen’s parents were surprised when they were told of the bullying. They said their son had never spoke of being racially taunted. “We never heard about any harrassment from anybody,” said Chen’s mother, Su Zhen Chen, who spoke with her son while he was deployed overseas in August.
Despite the speculation, the Chens do not believe their son would’ve committed suicide.
“I think he enjoyed the Army,” said Chen’s father, Yan Tao Chen. “Ever since he was a little kid, that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to join the police force after his service, so the Army was a means of getting there.”
As the family honored their son’s life at last week’s funeral service on Mulberry Street, dozens of Lower Manhattanites young and old who didn’t know Chen personally congregated in front of the funeral home to pay their respects.
“It touched a nerve. I felt like I had to come down here,” said West Village resident Paul Cook, who waited outside the funeral home to catch a glimpse of the procession.
Cook said the alleged way Chen died is troubling.“It infuriates you,” he said. “It’s bad enough to hear all the other things that happen to people over there.”
Several Vietnam and other war veterans stood in front of the funeral home to commemorate Chen, such as Len Williams, a former platoon leader in the Vietnam War. “War is stressful as is… nobody wants to see somebody die as a result of hatred from somebody in their own unit,” said Williams.
Williams said he never felt personally threatened by his fellow soldiers while on duty. “I’m sure there were men that hated me,” said Williams, “but I thought I had a good working relationship with my company.”
Chen’s family and friends, meanwhile, were grieving his loss.
“He was a cool guy,” said a M.S. 131 classmate of Chen’s who lives in his family’s apartment building at E. 4th Walk St.
The teen, who requested anonymity, is also enlisted in the Army and will soon be sent overseas. As an Asian-American, the teen said he worries constantly about his own security.
“It’s always on your mind,” he said. “If you’re the minority, they’re going to try to find your weakness. I always pray and hope for the best.”
Raymond Dong, who said he was Chen’s best friend, described Chen as easy-going.
“I knew him since third grade,” said Dong. “After school, we would go to the gym, eat and have fun. He liked to always make jokes.”
Dong is also confident Chen didn’t commit suicide, since he showed no signs of distress during a phone conversation he and Chen had a week prior to his death.
“He sounded really happy and stuff,” said Dong. “He got bullied a few times [in school], but he’d never do anything like that.”
Though too distraught to attend the Oct. 17 press conference, Chen’s grieving parents said they feel comforted by the support of the community. When asked whether they regret their son’s decision to join the Army, his father replied, “It’s something he enjoyed, so I have no regrets.”
“I have no bitterness toward the Army,” said his mother, “but I want to find out the facts, so it’ll never happen to someone else again.”