Bullying or a test of mettle?
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.