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Army reveals 'sensitive' material to family of dead Chinese-American soldier

Jonathan Woods/msnbc.com

Su Zhen Chen, left, and Yan Tao Chen, parents of Pvt. Danny Chen, share memories of their son at their home in New York on Dec. 30. They are joined by his aunt Lucy Chen, right.


The family of a Chinese-American soldier believed to have committed suicide in Afghanistan after allegedly being hazed by his fellow soldiers has received "very sensitive" new information on the investigation from the Army, according to a family friend.

Army officials briefed the parents of Danny Chen for several hours on Wednesday at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn about the death of their 19-year-old son, said Frank Gee, an Army veteran and vice commander of the American Legion's New York branch who also attended.

"Basically they informed the family of what ... happened," said Gee, 72, who was called into the case to help translate for the Chen family.  "... There is something new, but we are not authorized to divulge anything. It's very sensitive material because the prosecution is going on, the case is going on, and they don't want to jeopardize it."

Chen was found dead at a guard post on Oct. 3 at the remote Combat Outpost Palace in the Panjwa'i district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. The Army announced in late December that it had charged eight of his fellow soldiers in his death.

Elizabeth Ouyang, New York branch president of OCA, a national civil rights organization serving Asian Pacific Americans, also attended the meeting but declined to comment on what was said. The Chen family held a press conference Thursday afternoon to discuss some details of the briefing.

Chen's mother, Su Zhen, and father, Yan Tao, both 49, were briefed by representatives from the Criminal Investigation Command (CID), the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's office and Regional Command-South, among others.

"The Army informed Private Chen's family of the administrative investigation's findings pertaining to the cause and manner of Private Chen's death, and the current status of court-martial proceedings arising out of the administrative and ongoing criminal investigations," an Army spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Amy Hannah, said Wednesday in a statement.

The charged soldiers have been assigned to a different forward operating base in Afghanistan, removed from active duty and placed under increased supervision of senior non-commissioned officers, Sgt. 1st Class Alan G. Davis, an Army spokesman, said in an email.

Jonathan D. Woods/msnbc.com

A shrine for Pvt. Danny Chen at his home in Manhattan last Friday.

There were no other known suicides at Combat Outpost Palace, where Chen was stationed, prior to his death and the regional command has no other cases of charges relating to suicides. The outpost came under 16 attacks, but no soldiers died as a result, Davis said.

Five of the eight soldiers were charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, apparently the first time such charges have been brought in this type of case, military legal and hazing experts said. "The charges relate to conduct that occurred in the time leading up to his death," Davis wrote.

The CID said Tuesday that it investigated all deaths as if they were homicides and their query into Chen's death was not complete. CID agents on the ground were deployed within minutes of his death to begin the investigation, which generally includes interviews, toxicology reports and autopsies, said Chris Grey, chief of public affairs at USA Criminal Investigation Division.

“I know they (the Army spokesmen in Afghanistan) used the words 'apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound,' but our case is still ongoing," Grey said. "Seeing the nature of what’s going on with the soldiers being charged, etc., it did cause a little bit of confusion, but I can guarantee that our investigation is ongoing."

Abuse at base in Afghanistan
The death of their only child has taken a toll on the Chens, immigrants from Taishan in southern China.

A portrait of their son in uniform stood on a foldout table in their living room last week. Incense burned in front of the makeshift shrine illuminated by candles and his favorite foods had been placed on a paper plate: a chocolate chip cookie, a bag of Skittles, some Doritos and a Cup of Noodles with a fork placed in the soggy ramen. Alongside lay his military medals and the American flag that was draped over his casket.

His mother said that when she leaves the apartment in a towering lower Manhattan housing project, she stands in front of the shrine to tell her son that she'll be back.

"I tried to reason with Danny that it's very difficult in the Army, but Danny says, yeah he knows the difficulty in the service," said Su Zhen, trembling and tearful, as Gee translated from the Chinese dialect of her hometown. "If he got killed in the line of duty at the front line, that's different. But under the circumstances, I feel extremely sad because it was a suicide -- but driven to suicide."

When Chen enlisted in the Army, he saw it as the first step to achieving his dream of one day becoming a New York City police officer, his parents said. But some ten months after joining, the 6' 3" bespectacled Army private was dead.

The Chens said they had been informed in fits and starts about the circumstances of their son’s death and alleged hazing by his fellow soldiers.

Two soldiers and a chaplain came to the Chens' apartment on Oct. 3 to tell them that their son had died but not how. Three days later, they got a call from Army investigators informing them that their son had been subject to some abuse for not having turned off the hot water heater in the shower. They eventually were told that two instances of abuse were when he was dragged out of his bed and made to crawl on the ground while rocks were thrown at his back, and he was forced to do chin-ups while holding liquid in his mouth that he was not allowed to swallow or spit out.

Chen's father, Yan Tao, a cook, said it was difficult for them to comprehend what happened.

"Initially, there was a great shock when we found out that Danny got killed, but when this came out, we felt extra sad that it happened that particular way," he said, also speaking through a translator. "Things like that should not happen in the Army. I think they should have better control over the condition, or the atmosphere, at the base."

"We want the truth to come out, so if it turns out to be something even worse ... we are willing to accept that," he added.

Courtesy of the Chen family

Pvt. Danny Chen, left, with his mother, Su Zhen Chen.

In a book from the memorial service held for him on Oct. 6 in Afghanistan, one soldier described Chen like any member new to the unit -- timid and shy, while another recalled him as cheerful, laughing at all jokes, and reading his "ranger hand book and learning the different movement formations." Yet another recalled that he was a needed replacement, and took up the rifleman post.

"From what I heard about him Danny never complained and always kept a smile on his face," wrote Cpt. Allred in a tribute to Chen. "He was a determined member of the team who sought to find his place among the battle hardened platoon living in a relatively austere environment."

Final care package
Chen's parents don't accept that their son killed himself. His father pointed to a cardboard box encircled by priority mail tape sitting on the floor. It was the last care package they sent to him, which he asked for in his third phone call to them from Afghanistan on Sept. 27, six days before his death.

"In the latest telephone call, he still asked his mom to send all of this good stuff and there's no indication ... that he would do it," Yan Tao said.

Su Zhen also said her son had no history of depression. In their last talk, when she asked him how the other soldiers were treating him, he said it was nothing that she should be concerned about, "the normal stuff." She said he hadn't mentioned any problems and had never spoken of any trouble with his fellow GIs.

But a cousin, Banny Chen, 18, said that Chen had complained in a Feb. 27 letter sent while he was at basic training in Georgia that he had been picked on because of his ethnicity.

"Since I'm the only Chinese person here, everyone knows me by Chen," the letter said. "They ask if I'm from China like a few times a day. They also call out my name, Chen, in a goat-like voice sometimes for no reason. No idea how it started but its 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 comeback (sic) at them."

At the time, Banny said he "didn't think it was really a big deal because I thought he would be used to ... racist jokes."

The pair kept in touch on Facebook while Chen was in Afghanistan. There didn't seem to be any problems and he just asked for junk food and updates on the family. He did seem homesick, Banny said, and he shared a Facebook message from Chen that read "its hard work, but its what i signed up for (sic)."

"None of this was really expected," Banny said, noting the aftermath was "stressful because of all the mystery behind what really happened."

Chen spoke English, Cantonese and his parents' dialect, liked to play handball and video games and embraced Chinese culture, his father said, laughing at the memory of his son praying at Chinese New Year that his mother wouldn't get upset with him for the bad things he may do in the coming year. Yan Tao described his son as a bit mischievous at times, getting into small, inconsequential troubles, but his mother noted that he was "happy-go-lucky" and a good student.

Courtesy of the Chen family

Melissa Chen (from left), Emmi Chen, Pvt. Danny Chen, Banny Chen (with headphones), and Jason Chen pose for a photo as Danny holds up "rabbit ears" behind Jason.

A photo album he made in grade school showed him playing around with two cousins, including Banny. Other pictures from after completing basic training in Georgia showed him goofing around with relatives, putting "rabbit ears" on one of them.

"He was like the comic relief of the ... family," Banny said. "He used to get the class clown awards in elementary school."

Chen decided he wanted to become a police officer after being the victim of an attack following the family's move into the housing project on the Lower East Side several years ago from Chinatown -- the bustling, busy playground of his youth. Some boys chased him for blocks, calling him "Chinese." During the attack, he was punched in the head and his glasses were broken. A bystander intervened and called the police, but Danny said he did not want to press charges.

"Danny said ... (they're) very young so maybe it's very bad for them" in the future if they have a record, his aunt, Lucy Chen, recalled him saying. Tapping her chest, she said of Chen: "The heart is very good."

As the Chinese New Year approaches -- it is the last week in January, kicking off the Year of the Dragon -- the Chens have no plans to celebrate what is seen as the "renewal of life."

"I don't have the desire to do any of the ceremony that is normally associated with the Chinese New Year," Su Zhen said through sobs, noting the painful absence of her son's voice. "I'm too sad to participate."

Chen is buried at a cemetery in the New York suburbs. His parents have bought the plots next to his, so they can be together in death. Despite their loss, they said they hope that what happened to him will force the Army to make changes to prevent other deaths.

"Hopefully that's the case," Su Zhen said, "that he would not die in vain."