The harassment of 19-year-old Danny Chen started in basic training — teasing about his name, repeated questions of whether he was from China, even though he was a born-and-raised New Yorker. He wrote in his journal that he was running out of jokes to respond with.
It got worse in Afghanistan, military investigators told his family. They said the other men in his unit showered Chen, the only Chinese-American in his unit, with racial slurs and physical abuse in the weeks leading up to his suicide in early October. Eight soldiers have been charged in connection with his death.
For some Asian-Americans who have served in the military, the racial prejudice aspect of Chen’s alleged mistreatment comes with little surprise based on what they’ve seen or experienced. But others say the military is a place where everyone’s limits are tested, and that the failure in Chen’s case is one of leadership.
Vietnam War veteran David Oshiro isn’t surprised to hear of the accusations of racial prejudice. The 63-year-old Japanese-American said he didn’t have problems with the men in his unit but often heard slurs from other enlisted Americans. When he was injured, military Medevac personnel assumed he was Vietnamese and nearly delayed his evacuation until all the solders they thought were American had been flown out.
“I got really upset, I started yelling back, ‘I’m an American. You get my ass out of here now,'” said the San Rafael, Calif., resident said.
“It still upsets me, because I keep thinking, ‘We’re on the same team!'”
Daniel Kim, a 39-year-old Korean-American who spent 12 years in the infantry before leaving in 2004, questioned the leadership in Chen’s unit. Among those implicated are a lieutenant and several non-commissioned officers.
“Who else knew? Who else didn’t speak up?” asked Kim, who now lives in Queens.
The Asian-American presence is small in the military, as in the U.S. population. The most recent data show 43,579 Asian-Americans on active duty in 2010, making up 3.7 percent of those enlisted. Most were in the Army or Navy.