Editor's corner/ Over a cup of tea
Heidi M. Pascual*
Publisher & Editor
* 2006 Journalist of the Year
for the State of Wisconsin
The case of Danny Chen
Danny Chen was a 19 year-old New York-born Asian American who chose to serve his
country by enlisting in the military after high school. While his friends were filling up
applications for college, this shy American teener of Chinese descent wanted to do
something different for himself, and was eager to see some action. Last year, he was
deployed in Afghanistan after training in Fort Benning and later, in Fort Wainwright in
Alaska. He was the youngest member of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st
Stryker Brigade Combat Team, called the “Arctic Wolves.”
But some members of the “Arctic Wolves” made Danny’s life miserable. The only Asian
American in the team, he endured racial slurs such as “gook,” “chink,” “dragon lady,” and
was tormented ever day. Not one to pick up a fight, Danny swallowed all the humiliation he
was subjected to. But the continued torture, including being forced to crawl on gravel while
his fellow soldiers threw rocks at him and to do sprints while carrying a sandbag for no
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apparent reason proved too much for Danny. Two months after being deployed in Afghanistan, Danny was found dead
with a gunshot wound, which the Army described as “an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
Danny’s “suicide” was clearly induced, a result of a never-ending racial prejudice in our society, and in this case, the
military. A similar case was that of Lance Cpl. Harry Lew of California, who also committed suicide in Afghanistan
earlier in April, after enduring being subjected to military hazing by his peers. In both cases, Asian American advocates
cried foul, Asian American congressional leaders sought a thorough investigation into the hazing; and the military
charged several men involved therein.
What’s missing in our military training, I ask? A January 2012 article in the New York Magazine quoted Danny, from his
diary, which pointed to the same experience many Asian Americans experience outside the military:
“They ask if I’m from China like a few times day,” he wrote. “They also call out my name (Chen) in a goat like voice
sometimes for no reason. No idea how it started but now it’s just best to ignore it. I still respond though to amuse them.
People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time, I’m running out of jokes to come back at them.”
Cultural sensitivity training is definitely missing. Trainees should not just learn the cultures of the people in the country
where they will be deployed, but also the cultures of the members of their respective platoons, brigades, or units. And it
is not enough to learn others’ cultures inside a classroom. It is very important to apply in a respectful way what they
have learned in their everyday lives, inside or outside the military base. It sometimes boils down to bad manners and
disrespect for others. In most cases, however, racial discrimination is clearly written on the wall.
The United States military has been involved in many wars (and it still is), and thousands of Asian Americans have
served or are serving in the military because they chose to serve their country. As of 2010, there were more than 43,000
Asian Americans enlisted in the U.S. military. Going back in time, there were evidences of Chinese Americans who
fought – for both the Union and the Confederates -- during the Civil War, despite being treated “differently” like the
Blacks. There were Japanese Americans who fought the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, although they
were segregated into the 100th Battalion, that later integrated into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 442nd
was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history! I may add, this, despite the fact that
their families were “relocated” to Internment Camps.
Danny Chen, like all other Asian American service men and women, simply wanted to belong – be seen and accepted
as American. What is so difficult with that? Some people say the Asian trait of being quiet, shy, and willing to endure
ethnic jokes thrown at them is seen as a weakness, and the military is no place for such a trait. Really? Does one need
to be rude, disrespectful, and boisterous to be readily accepted in the army or navy? Doesn’t military discipline also
entail respect for others, regardless of color, gender, nationality, religion, etc.?
Danny’s “teammates,” who pushed him to
end his own life were initially charged with
involuntary manslaughter, negligent
homicide, assault consummated by battery.
The only officer who was likewise accused
was charged with dereliction of duty. Later,
the most serious charge of involuntary
manslaughter was dropped, which raised
questions as to how this case would
Court martial for the offenders is in order; but
the military should not stop there. Now is the
time to look deeper into why people of color
leave early or commit suicide while they’re on
active duty in the war zone or in other U.S.
bases, and what measures should be
implemented to prevent the same from ever
happening again. Make no mistake about it,
like victims of war, Asian Americans are
sensitive to violence and racial prejudice, too.