soldiers pulled Private Chen out of bed and dragged him across the floor; they forced him to crawl on the ground while they pelted him with rocks and taunted him with ethnic slurs. Finally, the family said, they ordered him to do pull-ups with a mouthful of water — while forbidding him from spitting it out. Hours later, he was found dead in a guard tower, from what a military statement on Wednesday called “an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound” to the head.
For decades, Asian-Americans have had an uneasy relationship with the military, enlisting at lower rates than other ethnic groups. Many Asian-American families have emphasized higher education and white-collar occupations, rather than the armed services, as a way to get ahead in America, experts say. The dearth of high-profile Asian-Americans in the upper echelons of the military may have also discouraged enlistment.
Soldier’s Death Raises Suspicions in Chinatown
By KIRK SEMPLE
Friends and relatives crowd into Su Zhen Chen’s small apartment in an East Village housing project, bearing food and solace for her and her husband. A community leader sometimes shows up to pay respects, or a military official arrives with papers to sign. Adults gather in the cramped living room for hushed chats in Chinese as children do homework at the kitchen table. For Ms. Chen, these are welcome distractions.
But at night, when the apartment goes quiet, the grief surges back, and Ms. Chen sits with a portrait of her son, her only child, and ponders what unfolded on a dusty military base half a world away. “It’s so sad that he loved the Army and this happened,” she said.
On Oct. 3, her son, Pvt. Danny Chen, was found shot to death in a guard tower on an American outpost in Afghanistan. He was 19 years old.
Three days after his death, a military official told Ms. Chen and her husband, Yan Tao Chen, that investigators had not yet determined whether the shot to the head was self-inflicted or fired by someone else.
But the official also revealed, the Chens said, that Private Chen had been subjected to physical abuse and ethnic slurs by superiors, who one night dragged him out of bed and across the floor when he failed to turn off a water heater after showering.
Since then, the military has given little information about its investigation to the Chens, immigrants who speak no English.
And though military officials have reassured the Chens that a thorough investigation is being conducted, their grief is laced with suspicion, shared by their supporters in the local Chinese community, that they will never learn the truth.
For decades, Asian-Americans have had an uneasy relationship with the military, enlisting at lower rates than other ethnic groups.
Many Asian-American families have emphasized higher education and white-collar occupations, rather than the armed services, as a way to get ahead in America, experts say. The dearth of high-profile Asian-Americans in the upper echelons of the military may have also discouraged enlistment.
In New York’s Asian population, the reaction to Private Chen’s death has underscored this feeling, and community leaders say the case threatens to chill attitudes toward the military.
“The family deserves the truth — the honest truth,” said Melissa Chen, one of Private Chen’s aunts.
Private Chen kept a journal while deployed, relatives said, but military investigators have so far shared only three pages of it with the family. On one, a cartoonish face with an angst-ridden expression is scrawled alongside the misspelled message: “Watever happens happens.”
On another, a list of notes, in what looks like Private Chen’s handwriting, describes procedural failures, including “Didn’t clear weapon,” “Didn’t hydrate,” and “No attention to detail (little things).”
Relatives said they had no idea what to make of the pages. The military’s decision to release them while retaining the rest of the journal has only added to their bewilderment.
A spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigation Command said officials in Afghanistan were conducting a “thorough, in-depth investigation” into Private Chen’s death.
“We’re not only investigating to determine the cause and manner of his death, but also the circumstances leading up to his death,” said the spokesman, Christopher Grey. “We take this investigation and the tragic loss of Private Chen very serious and will not close our investigation until we are fully confident we have determined exactly what transpired.”
He added that no other details would be released until the investigation was completed.
From the little that the military has told them, family members believe that investigators are focusing on suicide as the cause of death. If that is the determination, the case may echo that of another Asian-American, Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, a Marine from California who killed himself in April in Afghanistan after fellow Marines allegedly subjected him to a brutal hazing. Last week, the Marines were ordered court-martialed.
But among Private Chen’s relatives and friends in New York City, nobody will accept that he killed himself. “I know him well enough to know he would not commit suicide,” Ms. Chen said in Taishanese, a Chinese dialect, her voice hardening in anger. “I suspect someone went after Danny.”
In interviews with Private Chen’s relatives and friends, and in a review of a personal journal he kept and letters he wrote to his parents, a portrait emerges of a child of Chinatown who, amid self-doubt about his physical abilities, strived to succeed in the military.
Private Chen’s father worked as a chef in Chinese restaurants, and his mother was a seamstress in a garment factory. He was a good student who led a subdued social life, playing video games and watching movies with cousins and a small group of friends. In recent years, he took up handball.
Early on, he wanted to be a New York City police officer, his parents said, and planned to spend a few years in the military before joining the police. “He wanted to catch bad guys,” his father said.
His mother said she tried to talk him out of enlisting because of the dangers. His father supported his choice, however reluctantly, because it seemed honorable.
To recruiters, Private Chen was probably a welcome sight. Asian enlistment rates have historically been low, and military officials have been trying to raise those numbers. The Asian population in the United States is nearly 5 percent, according to the 2010 Census.
For most of the past decade, Asians have been less than 3 percent of all military recruits, rising to 3.2 percent in 2010, officials said.
At the same time, minority advocates have expressed concern over the treatment of Asians in the military.
“There has to be an environment where they are integrated, protected and supported,” said Elizabeth R. OuYang, president of the New York chapter of OCA, a civil rights group. “It’s unclear that that’s the case.”
Private Chen was the first of his extended family to serve in the American military.
At basic training in Fort Benning, Ga., Private Chen’s experience did not seem unusual. He endured rigorous training, tedium and occasional homesickness, according to a journal he kept and weekly letters he sent to his parents.
He confessed to doubts about whether he was strong enough to make it, describing himself as “the weakest one left.” Yet he never suggested that he would quit, and was often enthusiastic about some of the training, particularly weapons instruction.
He revealed that he was teased by other recruits because of his race, but seemed to take it in stride. “I get made fun of for being Asian/Chinese everyday but it’s not hard core,” he wrote his parents. “All for the sake of jokes. I get them back, too.”
He completed training in April and was assigned to a brigade at Fort Wainwright in Alaska. In August, he was deployed to an outpost in volatile Kandahar Province in Afghanistan.
The details of Private Chen’s life in Afghanistan remain a mystery to his friends and parents in New York. Several members of his battalion did not reply to e-mails seeking comment, and none of them have reached out to his family. A press officer for the brigade denied requests for interviews because of the investigation.
During deployment, Private Chen called home three times and sounded upbeat, his parents said.
“I’d ask him how he was doing over there, is it hard? And he would say ‘I knew it would be hard,’ ” his mother recalled. “I asked him if anybody was bullying him, and he replied, ‘That’s to be expected.’ ”
On Sept. 20, he sent a Facebook message to Raymond Lam, a childhood friend from New York City.
“It sucks here all sandy and everything,” he wrote. “Prob gunna b bak at around May-June one of those i have no idea but whatever.”
“Is it like dangerous at all?” Mr. Lam asked in a message on Sept. 27. But Mr. Lam never heard back.
Six days later, three Army officials knocked at the door of the Chens’ apartment.