The family of 19-year-old Danny Chen has demanded an investigation after the Army private was found dead in Afghanistan of what military authorities say was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Chen’s family says, before his death, he reported being subjected to racist hazing, with soldiers throwing rocks at him and calling him ethnic slurs. Now the Army has charged eight soldiers involved in his death with crimes ranging from dereliction of duty to manslaughter. We speak to Danny’s first cousin, Banny Chen, who says, “We still don’t know if [his death] was suicide or if someone else pulled the trigger.” We’re also joined by New York City Council Member Margaret Chin, who helped Chen’s family obtain a meeting with the Pentagon and is demanding the military screen recruits for racial bias. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Army has announced eight soldiers are being charged in the death of an Army private who apparently took his own life in Afghanistan earlier this year. Nineteen-year-old Danny Chen was found dead of what military authorities say was a self-inflicted wound to the head in October. Chen’s family says he had been subjected to race-based hazing, with soldiers forcing him out of bed, throwing rocks at him, calling him ethnic slurs, and forcing him to do push-ups or hang upside down with his mouth full of water. The eight soldiers charged in his death are accused of crimes ranging from dereliction of duty to manslaughter.
The charges come after Chen’s family and supporters demanded a thorough investigation. They made this video asking, “What happened to Danny?”
DANNY’S CLASSMATE: A week before Danny died, he was laughing with us on Facebook.
DANNY’S AUNT: He couldn’t wait to come home for dim sum.
DANNY’S UNCLE: The Army told us Danny was beaten by his superiors.
REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Our soldiers deserve respect for serving our country.
DANNY’S FATHER: My son wanted to be a policeman.
DANNY’S UNCLE: What happened to Danny?
DANNY’S FRIEND 1: What happened to Danny?
DANNY’S FRIEND 2: What happened to Danny?
DANNY’S FRIEND 3: What happened to Danny?
REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: What happened to Danny?
OCA-NY: What happened to Danny?
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, another Chinese-American soldier, Harry Lew, a Marine from California, apparently killed himself in April in Afghanistan. Investigators found Lew was subjected to a brutal hazing by his fellow Marines, who were ordered court-martialed in October.
For more, we’re joined here in New York by City Council Member Margaret Chin. She worked closely with Danny Chen’s family to meet with the Pentagon and get more details about why Danny died. She’s a member of the Progressive Caucus. We’re also joined by Danny’s first cousin, Banny Chen.
Margaret Chin, Banny Chen, thanks so much for being with us. Can you lay out this story for us, City Council Member Chin?
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Well, when the community heard that a young soldier, a 19-year-old, died in Afghanistan, and when we don’t know the cause, and he didn’t die in combat, we demand answers. And when I attended the funeral in Chinatown, I was surrounded by his relatives and community members who came to the funeral to pay their respect, demand to know the truth. So that’s how the organizing started.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And there had also been apparently a series of—he had kept a diary, and there had been some letters in which he clearly indicated that there were problems in the way he was being treated by his fellow soldiers?
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Well, that’s what we’ve heard, like, you know, from his cousins and from his relatives, that there was, you know, mistreatment. And that’s why the parents couldn’t understand. Like, they send their son to serve this country, and they expect him to be protected, especially among his superior and his comrades.
AMY GOODMAN: Banny, tell us a little about your cousin. How old are you?
BANNY CHEN: I just turned 18, and Danny is a year older than me.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about growing up, how you knew each other, and…?
BANNY CHEN: Pretty much grew up together. Like, our parents were really close, so we always saw each other. And we had many, many fun times together.
AMY GOODMAN: He was born in Chinatown in New York City?
BANNY CHEN: Yes. And I was in Brooklyn, but I came over almost every weekend and slept over every vacation. So we were close.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And his decision to go into the military, did he talk to you about it or why he decided to go in the military?
BANNY CHEN: Actually didn’t talk to me about it, but when he—when I heard about it, I was thinking about joining with him, as well. But that didn’t work out for me. I went to college instead.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you hear when Danny went into the military, the letters he was writing home, the phone calls he was making?
BANNY CHEN: Actually, about the—about the abuse that you said earlier, Danny never actually told us anything about that. Through letters or anything, he never told us about that. It was only after his death that we were told about what happened prior to his death.
AMY GOODMAN: Except, City Council Member Chin, there were letters that weren’t there that he wrote to his parents that talked about abuse.
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: I think that they—there were description in terms of them making fun of him—his last name, in goat-like manners, asking him, like, “Are you from China?” many times, even though he was born in the United States, New York City. So there were a lot of those teasing that was going on. And he said that he just kind of ran out of jokes to sort of, like, to fight back. So, incidents like that were happening. And when we—when the Army did the—started to do the investigation, they started telling the family bits and pieces of what happened, like when they told the family that he was dragged across the floor because he forgot to turn off the hot water, and he had injuries on his back.
AMY GOODMAN: So, just to explain, he had the—you turn the hot water heater on when you take a shower.
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And he hadn’t turned it [off] after and then went to sleep.
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it was that happened next.
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Well, what the family was told—I mean, this is—it wasn’t told directly to me—but his superior officer came in—I think more than one—just dragged him across the floor, out of bed, in terms of disciplining him. And he had suffered injuries along his back. So, it’s like, is this how you treat your fellow officers? Even if you make a mistake, that is really not the way to discipline someone. And then, later on, there were more incidents where—you mentioned earlier, that the Army told the family. So, it’s like, more and more, we begin to uncover that there were lots of mistreatment that was going on.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I spoke briefly with Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez yesterday, and she indicated she also was instrumental with you in getting meetings with Pentagon officials. Could you talk about how difficult it was to get the authorities to deal with this? There was even a protest march that was organized by the community?
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Well, what happened was that, at the funeral, a lot of us, you know, activists in the community sort of were there at the funeral—Elizabeth OuYang, who’s the attorney and the president of OCA New York.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Which is?
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: It was formerly known as Organization of Chinese Americans. They are an advocacy group. They work a lot on hate crime issues. And we just sort of got together, saying we have to do something for this family to advocate to get some answers. We didn’t see any, you know, autopsy report. And the family kept getting calls from the Army. They want to meet with them. It was like, a meeting here, a meeting there. And we wanted to make sure that when there was meetings, that someone is there to sort of be with them to help ask questions. And so, Liz was at a lot of the meetings, and we said that we demand a meeting with the Army. And we wrote letters, and OCA also did the video and did an online petition, and I think that helped sort of galvanize the support. And the Army last week did meet with us in D.C.
But they didn’t want to talk about the case. But we used that opportunity to talk about reform. We say, “How do you train your commanding officer so that they are responsible if any kind of incidents like this happen under their watch? They have to be held accountable.” And the other thing is training for them and for soldiers about how do you embrace diversity, how do you work together, understand each other’s culture, and also in the recruitment process, that the community want to have input, in terms of training and in terms of recruitment, because they already started screening out people with criminal records or gang affiliation. Well, they should also look at how to screen out people who have these hatreds or racial discrimination tendencies.
AMY GOODMAN: Banny, could you talk about Danny’s sense of humor? I mean, he could take a lot, growing up.
BANNY CHEN: Yes. We actually go through season to season of South Park, which is really—you know, it’s the social areas. So, we’re pretty used to, you know, making like funny racist comments, you know? Like, even in his letter, he describes how, like, he made comebacks against what the others would say.
AMY GOODMAN: He was—what was he? Class clown?
BANNY CHEN: Yeah. I remember back in—back in, like, elementary school, he would get these awards for being class clown, and I would be jealous of him.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, here you have something, to say the least, that almost no one could deal with. The family say that Danny Chen was pulled out of bed, dragged across the floor, forced to crawl on the ground while they pelted him with rocks. These are his fellow soldiers, taunting him with ethnic slurs. The family says they ordered him to do pull-ups with a mouthful of water while forbidding him to spit it out. And then what happened, as you understand it, that night?
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: We don’t know what happened that night. I mean, what the Army told the family, and you read it in the news report, that he died of a self-inflicted wound. But we haven’t seen the autopsy report. The family has requested it, and we also asked our congresswoman, Nydia Velázquez, to request it. So, right now, whether it’s a homicide or suicide, these soldiers are responsible.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And has the family hired an independent pathologist to look at the findings when they actually get them?
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Well, OCA New York has reached out to Dr. Henry Lee to assist in this case, so that, hopefully, you know, he will be able to help us to really look through the reports.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan, in your newspaper, in the New York Daily News, a piece says, “One of the sadistic soldiers accused of driving Pvt. Danny Chen to his death tried to rape an ex-girlfriend a decade earlier,” according to court records.
“Spc. Ryan Offutt slugged and choked the woman [and] threw her on a bed 'so hard [that] she smashed into the headboard.'
“The victim told cops later she thought she 'was going to die,' the records state.
“The revelations about Offutt’s criminal past surfaced as he and the seven other soldiers implicated in Chen’s death were relieved of their duties and transferred to another Afghan base.”
This is a man with a record.
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Yeah. And that’s what we need to ask the Army: how are you screening the recruits? I mean, this is a voluntary army. And there are a lot of sons and daughters wants to serve this country. In order for you to attract the best people, you’ve got to have a culture and policy that really embrace diversity and protect, you know, our kids.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Banny, he wanted to be a police officer? That was one of the reasons why he joined the military? He thought it would be an easier route to being a police officer?
BANNY CHEN: Yes, that’s right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And your sense, when you first heard that he had committed suicide, as to whether this was something that you would somehow expect or foresee in terms of his previous character?
BANNY CHEN: It’s not something I would expect. And we still don’t know if it’s suicide or if someone else pulled the trigger or something. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Banny, what was the response of your whole family when you heard that eight officers—eight soldiers, one of them a higher-ranking officer, have been charged, criminal charges brought against them?
BANNY CHEN: We were sort of relieved, knowing that there is something more to it. It’s not just Danny himself. But we still think that there’s more to it, and there’s more that could be told.
AMY GOODMAN: And City Council Member Chin, the significance of this, one including a high-ranking officer?
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: It just, like—it goes back to what we’ve said. We are seeking reform from the Army. How can you have a superior officer mistreating a fellow soldier? That’s unacceptable. So there’s something wrong with the training. It’s not working. So, the Army needs to really look at their policy, their culture, how do they do training, how do they do recruitment. And we need to demand some changes now.
AMY GOODMAN: This other case of Harry Lew in California, a nephew of Congress Member Judy Chu, also apparently killed himself in April in Afghanistan, subjected to a brutal hazing by fellow Marines. What do you know about this case? Has Congress Member Chu reached out to the family?
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Yeah. I mean, we’ve heard about it just through news account. And then, that is something that we have to learn from it, and that’s why in Danny’s case, we said we have to organize and get to the truth. And that’s why that we’ve been, you know, getting signatures from the community and the rally, vigils, really drawing attention to this, that this is unacceptable.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about the death of Pat Tillman for a moment, the football star turned Army Ranger, who died in Afghanistan in 2004. The Pentagon initially told the public and the Tillman family he had been killed by enemy fire. Later, the military admitted Tillman was killed by friendly fire. I want to go to a clip of my interview with Mary Tillman, Pat’s mother.
MARY TILLMAN: I first learned from my daughter-in-law. She told me that Pat had been killed. And, of course, we heard from the casualty report that he had been shot in the head getting out of a vehicle, he died an hour later in a field hospital. And then, when we had his memorial service, the Army gave a Navy SEAL friend of Pat and Kevin’s a narrative to read that said that he was running up a ridgeline in an attempt to help a convoy of troops get through an ambush zone, and he was killed by the enemy.
But then, four weeks later, when Kevin, his brother, who was also in the same platoon but was not present when his brother was killed, he had gone back to Fort Lewis. He was taken aside by his first sergeant, and he was told that Pat was killed by friendly fire. I was told, however, by an Arizona Republic reporter, who called me assuming I knew already. And so, it was rather shocking to learn the news.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did the reporter tell you?
MARY TILLMAN: Well, he just said that the Army had indicated that Pat was killed by friendly fire, and what did I think? And I basically just sort of said, “I have nothing to say,” and I hung up.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mary Tillman, the mother of Pat Tillman. In terms of what the family is told, do you see similarities, City Council Member Margaret Chin?
COUNCIL MEMBER MARGARET CHIN: Well, I think that’s why the family wants to get to the whole truth, because when they first told them that Danny died and didn’t die in the front line, that really raised a lot of concern. And so, bits and pieces are coming out. Like, in the beginning, they didn’t tell about all these incidents that happened to him. So, that’s why the family wants to know. And right now, the Army has not definitively said suicide. So, that’s why we’re saying that we need to look at the autopsy report, and we want to get to the bottom of the truth. Exactly what happened to Danny?
AMY GOODMAN: We will continue to cover this story, of course. We want to thank you both for being with us. Margaret Chin, New York City Council member, who worked closely with Danny Chen’s family to meet with the Pentagon and get more details about why Danny died. Also, Banny Chen, we want to thank you very much for being with us, first cousin of Danny Chen.