NEW YORK — The harassment of Danny Chen, 19, started in basic training — teasing about his name, repeated questions of whether he was from China, even though he was a born-and-raised New Yorker. He wrote in his journal that he was running out of jokes to respond with.
It got worse in Afghanistan, military investigators told his family. They said the other men in his unit showered Chen, the only Chinese American in his unit, with racial slurs and physical abuse in the weeks leading up to his suicide in early October. Eight soldiers have been charged in connection with his death.
For some Asian Americans who have served in the military, the racial-prejudice aspect of Chen’s purported mistreatment comes with little surprise, based on what they’ve seen or experienced. But others say that the military is a place where everyone’s limits are tested, and that the failure in Chen’s case was one of leadership on the Army’s part.
It’s unclear how often service members experience racial bullying. Despite repeated requests, the Army did not provide any data. The Defense Department said it had no information because each branch of the military is responsible for its own recordkeeping. The Army did say that it has regulations against hazing and bullying.
Vietnam War veteran David Oshiro wasn’t surprised to hear of the accusations of racial prejudice. The 63-year-old Japanese American said he didn’t have problems with the men in his unit but often heard slurs from other enlisted Americans. When he was injured, medevac personnel assumed that he was Vietnamese and nearly delayed his evacuation until all the American soldiers had been flown out.
“I got really upset; I started yelling back, ‘I’m an American. You get my [expletive] out of here now,’ ” said the resident of San Rafael, Calif.
“It still upsets me, because I keep thinking, ‘We’re on the same team!’ ”
That wasn’t Rajiv Srinivasan’s experience. The 25-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan said sure, there were jokes about his Indian heritage from those who served with him. But if they approached disrespect, he said he shut it down.
“No matter what race or ethnicity, the Army is going to test the solidity of your character and your identity,” said the resident of Ashburn, Va. “You could be the quintessential military brat-turned-soldier from Fort Benning, Ga.; the culture of the Army is still going to be pushing you.”
Daniel Kim, 39, a Korean American who spent 12 years in the infantry before leaving in 2004, questioned the leadership in Chen’s unit. Among those implicated are a lieutenant and several noncommissioned officers.
“Who else knew? Who else didn’t speak up?” asked Kim, who now lives in Queens.
The Asian American presence is small in the military, as it is in the U.S. population. The most recent data showed 43,579 Asian Americans were on active duty in 2010, making up 3.7 percent of enlisted men and women. Most were in the Army or Navy.
In the officer corps, a little more than 8,400 were Asian American in 2010, or 3.9 percent.
They’re people like Anu Bhagwati, 36. The Indian American woman spent five years in the Marines, and said that she left in 2004 largely because of the discrimination and harassment she faced, even as an officer.
In her case, gender was the big issue, but she said she saw racial discrimination against others, including the few other Asian Americans she saw in the service.
“The great American myth about the U.S. military is that racism doesn’t exist,” she said. “It’s alive and well.”
In Chen’s case, while his parents are immigrants, he was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He enlisted in the military after high school.
Chen told his family and friends, and wrote in his journal, that he was teased about his name and repeatedly asked if he was Chinese. He said the bullying and abuse worsened in Afghanistan and racial slurs were used. At one point, when the soldiers were putting up a tent, Chen was forced to wear a construction hat and give instructions in Chinese, even though none of the other soldiers spoke the language, investigators told his parents.
On Oct. 3, Chen was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a guardhouse, the Army said.
Eight soldiers in Chen’s unit were charged in his death. In January, the military said that one should be court-martialed on charges including assault, negligent homicide and reckless endangerment — but not for involuntary manslaughter.
On Wednesday, the Army said two other soldiers should face courts-martial. One is charged with dereliction of duty; the other is charged with violations including assault and maltreatment.
Asian Americans played a role in the major American conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, and there’s some anecdotal evidence that Chinese Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War, said K. Scott Wong, a professor of history and public affairs at Williams College.
In World War II, Japanese Americans instantly fell under suspicion and their loyalties were questioned after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Those already serving in the military were removed from active duty or discharged, and many Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps.
Japanese Americans were later allowed to serve in the military, segregated into the 100th Battalion, which wrapped into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 442nd became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history.
The Vietnam War had its own concerns, as Asian Americans who fought in it were sometimes lumped in with the enemy.
Chen’s death was “a wake-up call,” said Elizabeth Ouyang, a Chinese community activist who has been a spokeswoman for his parents, who don’t speak English.
Asian Americans “have always just wanted to belong, to feel like part of America, and the ultimate way of doing that is by fighting for your country,” she said.
Chen’s situation sent “shockwaves through our community, that our effort to integrate, to contribute, to be part of America, is so undercut by the treatment that Danny received,” Ouyang said.
She said Chen’s parents are determined to find justice.
“I’ve seen them slowly go from grieving to anger to wanting justice for their son,” she said.