WASHINGTON — The Army filed charges Wednesday against eight Alaska-based soldiers in the death of a 19-year-old Army private, in a sign that the military is investigating whether racial harassment could have led him to commit suicide.
Pvt. Danny Chen's body was found in a guard tower in Afghanistan's Kandahar province in October, two months into his deployment. The New York native died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, but Chen's family and the Chinese American community pressed the military to explain what led Chen to kill himself. The New York Times later reported that investigators had told Chen's family that superiors had abused him and taunted him with ethnic slurs.
"There was some serious misconduct in this situation," said Jacinta Ma, the deputy director of the Asian American Justice Center, who was part of a group of Asian American organizations that met with Pentagon officials this month on behalf of Chen's family to discuss their concerns that Chen's case is not an isolated incident.
"The Army is a microcosm of what we see in society generally," Ma said. "As the Army gets more diverse, and you have more Asians in the armed forces, there's a chance for more friction."
The charges against the eight soldiers, based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, include dereliction of duty, assault, negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter.
Col. James Hutton, an Army spokesman, said the Army takes the matter seriously.
"We inculcate our soldiers with a need to treat all with dignity and respect," Hutton said. "We enforce standards, and when our soldiers fail to meet those standards, we take appropriate action."
Asian Americans represent about 4 percent of enlisted personnel. Though the military does have high-profile Asian American leaders, such as Veterans Affairs Secretary Erik Shinseki, a retired general, a March report by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission found a low representation of minorities in military leadership posts.
"The armed forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as demographically diverse as the nation they serve," the report said.
Tom Hayashi, the interim executive director of OCA, an organization of Asian Americans, said that he's "somewhat sympathetic" to the organizational challenges faced by the military, where service members come from a variety of different backgrounds and may not be familiar with different racial and ethnic groups.
"To a degree, there's a reflection of the challenges we see in society," he said. "We see the hate crimes that we normally see in the community normally play out in the military."
But Hayashi, who was part of the group that went to the Pentagon, expressed frustration with the Army's policies and procedures for reporting harassment. He said the burden shouldn't fall on the victim, who may have feared retribution if he reported the abuse.
"In all reality, we're talking about a 19-year-old young man who had not matured to a degree that he could follow protocol," Hayashi said. "We felt that putting the onus of reporting solely on the soldier who happens to be victimized was not acceptable."
Eugene Fidell, a co-founder of the Institute of Military Justice and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, attributes the problem to another aspect of military culture: hazing.
Fidell said that what happened to Chen might just have been part of the verbally and sometimes physically abusive rituals that many new recruits experience in training.
"It comes with the territory," Fidell said. "I think the military is an equal opportunity hazer."
Ma doesn't think so.
"Incidents like this I don't think you can call hazing," she said. "It's discrimination."
Hayashi said that racial harassment may actually be part of the hazing ritual.
"We can't ignore the fact that these kinds of behaviors are often racialized," he said.
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