Friday, January 6, 2012

Racism, the Army, and Pvt Danny Chen

For kids that get bullied in high school the conventional wisdom is that once you graduate It Gets Better. Once you leave the regimented confines of school, once the forced interactions with would be tormenters ends you're allowed to explore the world, find other people like yourself, and really explore the better parts of being alive. That's what we tell children, harassed and hopeless, unable to see any way out. In my personal experience, and in the experience of the vast majority of others who have made it past bad situations, this is a truth.

For Danny Chen, however, reality was cruelly the opposite.

Chen was born in Manhattan's Chinatown, and while he had his share of scrapes growing up there's nothing to show that his high school career was particularly trying. He was in his school's gifted program. He made good grades, and good friends. He could have gone to college on scholarship. He joined the U.S. Army instead.

He craved adventure, a way to prove his mettle, a path separate from that most Asian-Americans walked. Letters home from boot camp reveal that he was the continual object of racial slurs, but while boot was physically, mentally and emotionally demanding he loved how it pushed him, how it made him tougher, and he pushed through to the end.

He said he couldn't wait to deploy.

In August 2011 he was sent to Kandahar, where roadside bombs were an ever-present threat, into one of those situations that you always hear about in military movies: crucibles that bring men together, building bonds of trust in situations where mistakes might result in death. Instead, what Chen found was more racism. Harassment. Persecution. He was the only Chinese-American in his platoon. Army officials said, "...his superiors had considered him not fit enough when he arrived, and singled him out for excessive physical exercise: push-ups, flutter-kicks, sit-ups, sprints done while carrying a sandbag. Such punishments resemble the “smokings” that drill sergeants mete out at basic training to correct mistakes." This later led to further 'punishment'.

They belittled him with racial slurs. They forced him to do push-ups with a mouthful of water, refusing to let him swallow or spit any out. And, on September 27, a sergeant allegedly yanked him out of bed and dragged him across about 50 yards of gravel toward a shower trailer as punishment for supposedly breaking the hot-water pump. He endured bruises and cuts on his back. Army officials told Chen’s family that although the leader of his platoon found out about this incident, he never reported it as he was required to.

One week later, on the morning of October 3, Chen was scheduled to report for guard duty at 7:30 a.m. But when he got to the guard tower, he realized he’d forgotten his helmet and didn’t have enough water. A superior sent him back to the trailer to get what he needed, then allegedly forced him to crawl, with all his equipment, across some 100 meters of gravel in order to return to the tower so he could start his shift. While he was on the ground, two other superiors pelted him with rocks. And once he reached the tower, a superior grabbed him by his body armor and dragged him up the steps.

Just after 11am on October 3 a gunshot sounded from the guard tower. Chen had shot himself in the head.

Eight men were charged with involuntary manslaughter related to Chen's death and are facing court martial. All are white. They include a lieutenant, two staff sergeants, three sergeants, and two specialists. I'll tell you right now more than eight men were responsible for contributing to this young man's death. Racism welcomed Chen to boot camp. Racism followed him through his time there. Through it all he persevered, likely assuming this was just a function of boot; something he'd have to tough out before being assigned to a unit of brothers. He made some friends. But when he deployed to Afghanistan racism followed him there, too.

Environments like this don't happen by accident. Intolerant attitudes like this can't grow unless they are allowed to. Unless the perpetrators are given tacit permission. Eight men have been charged for Chen's death. How many others through boot camp were just as racist toward him a those in his unit? How many soldiers saw this and did nothing? How many took part? The line currently goes that our armed forces are there to protect our freedom. How can that be true if the prejudice of its members is allowed to go on unchecked? Who are these racist soldiers protecting? Whose values? Whose lives? If they weren't protecting Danny Chen, can I really believe if they had a choice they would protect me?

I read about this story with a mixture of shock, horror, deep sadness, and confusion. I don't know how to react because it doesn't seem like any reaction will be helpful or constructive. Chen is dead, and nothing I do can change that. His parents lost their only son and though eight face trial I find myself questioning whether anything will change for the next Danny Chen.

In World War 2 the 442nd infantry regiment, made up entirely of Japanese-American soldiers whose families waited out the war in relocation camps, was the most highly decorated unit in the history of the American armed forces (for its size and length of service.) They fought to prove their loyalty, to prove to the country they loved that they and their family belonged, and that their country could be proud of them. Sixty years later and now I wonder if all that blood earned Asians-Americans in this country any loyalty at all.

(Many of the facts and stories were taken from this heartbreaking account in New York Magazine.)

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