On the night of Oct. 3, 2011, Banny Chen had one foot in the shower when his mother knocked at the bathroom door. She said there was a phone call from the parents of his first cousin Danny Chen, and it was urgent.
But when Banny Chen picked up the receiver at their Brooklyn, New York, home, it wasn’t his aunt or uncle. Instead, it was a man from the U.S. Army speaking English, the now 22-year-old told NBC News.
“All they told me was that Danny is dead,” Banny Chen said. “I didn’t know how to respond, honestly, and right after I hung up the phone, I threw the phone across the hallway. That was my first reaction.”
Later that night, when Banny Chen, a college student at the time, arrived at his aunt and uncle’s apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was met by Danny Chen’s parents, another aunt and uncle, and three men in uniform, he said. Not much had been said since they were waiting for him to translate from Taishanese, a dialect of Chinese, to English, Banny Chen said.
Soon, one detail of the 19-year-old’s death emerged: Danny Chen, a private, had suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head while on guard duty at a military base in Afghanistan, where he’d been stationed for less than two months, Banny Chen said.
“Our immediate thoughts was that he was killed by enemies,” Chen said. “It was not until a week or so later that we started to slowly gain more information that Danny might have committed suicide, and that there were a lot of things going on coming up to his death.”
Those things included racial taunts and hazing from fellow soldiers — being made fun of for being Chinese, being dragged out of bed and forced to crawl while others threw rocks at his back after forgetting to shut off a hot water shower heater, being made to do chin-ups while keeping liquid in his mouth that he wasn’t permitted to swallow or spit out.
Eight soldiers, including a lieutenant and two staff sergeants, were initially charged in connection with Danny Chen’s death. The investigating officer, however, recommended that the top count of involuntary manslaughter be dropped for five soldiers charged with it, a move that led to lighter sentences and that angered the Asian-American community.
But as the fifth anniversary of Danny Chen’s death nears, Banny Chen said he wants people to remember that his cousin was alive before he died, that he was someone who enjoyed life and made others laugh, that he did the right thing when something wasn’t fair.
“He was just like any other New Yorker, like any other Asian American,” Banny Chen said. “With that idea, with that point, this could also happen to anyone.”
An only child born and raised to Chinese immigrants in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Danny Chen was part of Banny Chen’s life ever since he could recall, Banny Chen said. His dad and Danny Chen’s mother were siblings, and both their moms were very close.
Growing up, Banny Chen visited his older cousin every weekend, often watching Saturday morning cartoons together, he said. During vacations, they’d sleep over at each other’s homes.
From an early age, Danny Chen was funny and outgoing, Banny Chen said. At an aunt and uncle’s wedding, for instance, a then eight-year-old Danny Chen was the first to cut a rug, dancing in front of everyone by himself, his cousin recalled.
“And eventually, people started joining one by one,” Banny Chen said.
Danny Chen also had a keen sense of right and wrong, his cousin said. While Danny Chen and his parents were living in Chinatown, before moving to an apartment in a Lower East Side housing project, there was a small courtyard where the cousins used to play YuGiOh, a trading card game.
One time, a neighbor who joined in stole Banny Chen’s cards, he said. “It wasn’t until later that Danny ratted them out to me, and they ended up returning the cards,” he said.
Danny Chen also wasn’t vindictive. While living on the Lower East Side, where the Chens moved in 2005, Danny Chen was attacked twice, his cousin said. One time, he got the police to help find the teens responsible, but he declined to press charges, Banny Chen said.
“I don’t remember his responses, but it pretty much was, it happened to him, and he got over it,” he said.
Banny Chen said he couldn’t recall a specific time when his cousin said he wanted to join the Army, adding it was always an option that many young men, including himself, considered after graduating high school. The six-foot-three Danny Chen, who began working out after deciding to enlist, did try his hand at college, his cousin said. He spent a summer at Baruch College in Manhattan, but “he felt like it wasn’t his thing,” Banny Chen said.
Danny Chen went into the Army in early 2011. That year, Asian Americans made up just under four percent of active duty military members, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. Fang Wong, a retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 who was recently appointed to the Advisory Committee on Minority Affairs, told NBC News that Asian-American parents traditionally prefer that their children not join the military.
“The Asian community has to recognize that [if] we want to be a citizen of this country, there are certain obligations and a price that we have to live up to and pay,” Wong added. “Serving is one of those [ways] we can easily establish ourselves as being true Americans.”
To be sure, Danny Chen wanted to serve, to be a patriot, and his parents did their part supporting him, mailing care packages with candies, snacks, and chips whenever he asked, Banny Chen said. Some of the last communications Danny Chen had with his cousin were through Facebook Messenger, asking him to pass along junk food requests to his parents, Banny Chen said.
But never in those messages was there any hint of what had been happening during the less than two months Danny Chen had been stationed in Afghanistan, Banny Chen said. There was no mention of the taunts, of the hazings, about being called a “dragon lady,” feeling unhappy, or being called a racial slur, he said.
“As guys, we never really talked about emotional things,” Banny Chen said.
“If anything, I kind of blame myself for not trying to pry in to see how he was doing,” he added.
In the months after Danny Chen’s suicide, more about the abuse he endured became known, the details emerging during courts martial that the Chens attended at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Banny Chen served as the family’s translator, a role that helped him set aside the emotions he felt during those trials.
“It was still hard to understand because we were not familiar with how the military’s justice system works,” he said. “And it was also scary because we saw that the jury was made up of military personnel.”
The seven soldiers court martialed in Danny Chen’s death all received demotions, according to the Army. Five were handed sentences of confinement, ranging from 30 days to 10 months, while two were reprimanded and ordered to do hard labor.
Two of the eight soldiers also received bad conduct discharges, according to the Army.
An eighth man, former platoon leader Lt. Daniel L. Schwartz, was removed from the Army through non-judicial punishment, according to the Fayetteville Observer.
“I felt that the eight soldiers who were charged and court martialed definitely deserved more than what they were punished for,” Banny Chen said.
As the fifth anniversary of Danny Chen’s death approaches — to be marked by a public commemoration and march Sunday beginning at 2 p.m. from P.S. 130 in Manhattan’s Chinatown — some in attendance will likely be thinking of another young Asian American allegedly hazed earlier this year who also took his own life: Marines recruit Raheel Siddiqui.
Siddiqui’s March 18 suicide made news in early September following the results of a Marine Corps investigation into his death. It concluded that as many as 20 marines drill instructors and officers were either directly involved in hazing or ignored the signs as it was going on.
A 20-year-old Pakistani American from Michigan, Siddiqui leapt to his death from a barracks stairwell after allegedly being assaulted by his drill instructor. He had arrived for training on Parris Island, in South Carolina, just 11 days earlier.
While Danny Chen and Siddiqui were in different branches of the armed services, Banny Chen said that the military as a whole needs to change from both the inside and the outside to end the culture of hazing. He also said minorities should give careful consideration before joining the military, “because what happened to Danny is continuing.”
“Danny told me one of the things he learned in basic training was that there was to be no racism in the military,” he continued. “But apparently that is not executed the same way.”
Army spokesman Wayne V. Hall told NBC News in an email that soldiers are taught to treat everyone with dignity and respect. While the Army has had regulations and policies against hazing and bullying for some time, it has made changes and additions to them in the years following Danny Chen’s death, Hall said.
Among those were a revision to regulations in 2014 that include “an Army definition for hazing and bullying, reporting procedures, command and individual responsibilities, and guidance on treatment of persons”; an annual prevention of hazing training requirement for soldiers; and the tracking of hazing and bullying as of last October, with incidents between 2006 and 2013 reported as crimes to law enforcement, Hall said.
Federal lawmakers have also introduced legislation in Congress to end the ritual. Most recently, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) in April sponsored the “Harry Lew Military Hazing Accountability and Prevention Act,” named after her nephew, a Marine, who was hazed and took his own life six months before Danny Chen.
Over the last five years, Banny Chen said he and his family have been overwhelmed by support from the Asian-American community. Thinking back to when his cousin was alive, he said that his family members, and even Danny Chen, never thought of themselves as Asian Americans.
“It was not until after Danny passed away that suddenly we see this huge amount of support from people we don’t even know, people who also identify as Asian American,” he said. “It really gave us a sense that we were more than ourselves.”
These days, Banny Chen said he still thinks a lot about his cousin — about the time they spent together playing handball and video games like Super Smash Bros., about the happy kid who used to smile and crack jokes, about the young man who dreamt of someday becoming a New York City police officer.
His thoughts also turn to the soldiers who were charged in connection with his cousin’s death — and how it’s unjust, he said, that some were allowed to remain in the military.
“But at this point,” he added, “justice for me would be if Danny’s story could be told more and more, so that this could never happen again.”