NEW YORK — The harassment of 19-year-old Danny Chen 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 alleged mistreatment comes with little surprise based on what they’ve seen or experienced. But others say the military is a place where everyone’s limits are tested, and that the failure in Chen’s case is one of leadership.
It’s unclear how often military members experience racial bullying. Despite repeated requests, the Army did not provide any data and the Department of Defense said it didn’t have any information since the service branches are each responsible for their own record-keeping. The Army did say that it has regulations against hazing and bullying in place.
Vietnam War veteran David Oshiro isn’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, military Medevac personnel assumed he was Vietnamese and nearly delayed his evacuation until all the solders they thought were American had been flown out.
“I got really upset, I started yelling back, ‘I’m an American. You get my ass out of here now,’” said the San Rafael, Calif., resident said.
“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 Afghanistan veteran said sure, there were jokes about his Indian heritage from those who served with him. 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,” the Ashburn, Va., resident said. “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, a 39-year-old 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 non-commissioned 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 in the U.S. population. The most recent data show 43,579 Asian-Americans on active duty in 2010, making up 3.7 percent of those enlisted. Most were in the Army or Navy.
Among the officer corps, a little more than 8,400 were Asian-American in 2010, or 3.9 percent.
They’re people like Anu Bhagwati. The 36-year-old Indian-American woman spent five years in the Marines, and said she left in 2004 largely because she facing discrimination and harassment, 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 a New Yorker, born and raised on the lower east side of Manhattan. He enlisted in the military after high school.
Chen told family and friends, and wrote in his journal, that he was teased about his name and repeatedly asked if he was Chinese. 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, the teen was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a guardhouse, the Army said.
Eight soldiers in Chen’s unit were charged in the death. Investigative hearings are under way. In January, the military said it 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 court-martials. One is charged with dereliction of duty; the other is charged with violations including assault and maltreatment.
Asian-Americans have played a role in the major American conflicts of the 20th century. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that some Chinese-Americans were fighting on both sides in the Civil War, said K. Scott Wong, 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 sent to internment camps.
They were later allowed to serve, segregated into the 100th Battalion, which was later put with 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 alongside other Americans in an Asian country were sometimes lumped in with the enemy.
Chen’s death was “a wake-up call” that issues remain, 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.