Vigil in Chinatown marks army private’s suicide

Click here to see this story as it appeared in The Columbia Journalist.

Two years ago Thursday, Pvt. Danny Chen died in a guard tower at a U.S. Army outpost in Afghanistan. The cause, investigators said, was suicide brought on by brutal hazing from his superiors. Chen endured being stoned, dragged through gravel, and more.

Thursday night, his family, friends, and supporters gathered outside on Elizabeth Street, between Canal Street and Bayard Street, in Chinatown for a candlelight vigil to honor his memory. He was only 19 years old when he died.

“I hope my son won’t be forgotten,” Danny’s mother, Su Zhen Chen, said in Chinese as she cried.

The vigil was led by Elizabeth OuYang, President of the New York Chapter of the Organization for Chinese Americans, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, and a civil rights attorney.

The vigil began with the reading of Danny’s life story, including descriptions of the alleged abuses against the soldier. The group of about 30 to 40 attendees was divided into two parts, one to tell the story in Chinese, and another to tell it in English. Each group formed a quasi-line and had a leader who would read Danny’s story sentence by sentence. As the leader spoke a sentence, the attendees would go down the line and each repeat the sentence. This was done simultaneously by each group until his story was complete.

“Danny’s superiors threw rocks at him,” they said.

“Danny’s platoon leader turned a blind eye to the abuse.”

“Danny’s parents want justice.”

“Eight white superiors charged.”

“9,000 birthday cards for Danny delivered to Congress.”

These were just a few of the parts of Danny’s story that the group shouted. Su Zhen Chen joined in recounting her son’s story, but eventually she stopped. She stood by, wiping her nose, her face red from crying. Former mayoral candidate John Liu stood by and put his arm around her.

After they finished telling Danny’s story, a young woman beat a drum. Then OuYang led the group, candles in hand, around the block of Elizabeth Street in silence. OuYang led the procession with Danny’s parents, Su Zhen Chen and Yan Tao Chen, followed by friends, family, and supporters. Among the supporters, two men carried a white banner that read, “We Are Danny.” The banner was covered in well-wishes and signatures for the fallen soldier.

When the procession ended, the group began to sing “We Shall Overcome” while a man played guitar and a woman played the tambourine. After the song, OuYang welcomed City Councilwoman Margaret Chin.

“If there is injustice, we have to fight back,” said Chin.

The vigil ended with Danny’s mother breaking into tears while speaking to the crowd and thanking them for their support.

“The pain is very fresh for his parents,” said Liu. Six of the eight soldiers that hazed Danny have been discharged due to hazing and supporters expect discharges to come soon for the remaining two soldiers. Yet his parents and supporters said they feel justice has not yet been served.

“There still need to be critical reforms in the military to ensure this doesn’t happen to anyone else ever again,” said Elizabeth OuYang. She said she feels the military still has a long way to go to resolve issues related to hazing.

“The point here is that we do not want Danny’s death to be in vain,” said Liu.

To make sure no one forgets Danny, his supporters have proposed that the city co-name that block of Elizabeth Street as Danny Chen Way. It has passed every vote except for a vote in the City Council, which has yet to take place. Supporters hope the name change will be made by the end of the year.

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