Private’s birthday is met with cards, tears and resolve
BY ALINE REYNOLDS | It was an outpouring of emotion prompted by tragedy, with the backdrop a photo of an only child who died far too young.
Some 400 Chinatown residents and students gathered at Pace University High School, at 100 Hester St., last Thurs., May 24, to commemorate the late U.S. Army Private Danny Chen, a 2010 graduate of the school.
Were Chen still alive, he would have celebrated his 20th birthday over Memorial Day weekend.
The event, arranged by the New York chapter of Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), consisted of poignant performances by drummers, spoken-word artists and dancers — their art calling for justice for Chen and offering emotional catharsis to those who knew him personally or learned of him after he passed.
The acts ranged from tribal-sounding percussion numbers and classical pieces to rock songs and contemporary dances. Interspersed throughout were readings of a handful of the roughly 9,000 birthday cards sent in Chen’s memory from people around the globe, along with heartfelt speeches made by Chen’s advocates and family.
Chen was born in Chinatown. At a young age, he moved with his parents to an apartment in East Village public housing, and was living with them there before joining the Army. He was found dead last October in a guard tower in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where his military unit was deployed at the time. Military officials have since concluded Chen shot himself after fellow soldiers bullied and physically abused him because of his Asian-American ethnicity.
Yalini Dream, a spoken-word artist from Bedford-Stuyvesant, was inspired to perform at the event after hearing about Chen’s death late last year through OCA-NY. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, Dream participated in sit-ins advocating for Asian-American studies at the university, in which several of her classmates were arrested.
“I knew there was a lot of anger and a lot of pain,” she said of Chen’s suicide. “I think it’s really important that we come together and we celebrate people’s lives, and harness the power of healing and love to push forward and motivate us as we fight for justice.”
It’s crucial that the government examine how the U.S. military is functioning in order to prevent future acts of hazing, said Dream, whose brother’s two friends are in the Army.
With respect to Army reforms, the anti-hazing legislation introduced by Congressmember Nydia Velazquez passed in the House and is now awaiting Senate approval. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has also introduced a bill calling for stricter enforcement of the military’s anti-hazing rules.
The start of the courts-martial of the eight soldiers implicated in Chen’s death has been postponed until August.
The trial of Staff Sergeant Blaine Dugas is now set to begin on Thurs., Aug. 16 — three months later than the start date the Army previously announced, according to OCA-NY President Liz OuYang.
The mid-May trial dates had conflicted with a memorial service the military hosted in Alaska for Chen and fellow soldiers from his unit who died in combat during their Afghanistan deployment, OuYang said.
“They had scheduled both at the same time, and we told them it’s not fair to have the family choose between which one to go to,” she said. “But it turned out that the defendant’s attorney had requested a delay anyway, so it worked out.”
At the Pace birthday event, Chen’s 16-year-old cousin Alex Wong recited a solemn poem saying Chen is “dearly missed” and that, while time won’t heal the wound, “we will learn to accept [what happened].”
Some of Chen’s former schoolmates were also present, including Umme Begum, a junior at the high school who is active in student government.
“He always kept to himself, but I realized he was actually a really smart kid,” Begum said.
Begum added that Pace University High School has held moments of silence for Chen, and there have been discusions about him in class. There have also been candle-ligthing events for Chen and photos of him posted in the hallways.
Seated in the auditorium’s front row that evening were Chen’s parents, Su Zhen Chen and Yan Tao Chen, who stoically watched the performances and, later, somberly addressed the crowd.
As they strode to the stage, the Chens were greeted by a standing ovation. Their remarks were translated into English by a city employee.
“Without your support, I would not be able to live until today,” Chen’s mother told the gathered group in a high-pitched tone as she wiped away tears. “My husband and I wish what happened to my son does not happen to someone else.”
The event comes on the heels of OCA-NY’s card-writing campaign honoring Chen’s birthday. In just more than a month, the organization received thousands of birthday cards from 25 states around the country and nine countries, including Hungary, Denmark and Germany.
OCA-NY, joined by a few other civil rights groups, hand-delivered the cards to Congress the day before the Pace birthday ceremony.
“We sent a strong message that we do not want them to forget Danny,” said Mackenzie Yang, representing OCA-NY.
“The outcome of these upcoming trials, and what the U.S. does to address these serious issues, will further determine your legacy,” Ou Yang said of the deceased private, in her remarks at the Pace event.
The abuse Chen endured in the Army has shocked and frightened children, such as 8-year-old Clara Shapiro, who read aloud her birthday card on stage.
“Dear Danny, We are so upset and sad that those other soldiers who are on your side were so cruel to you,” she wrote. “I don’t want to ever join the Army, because it is a violent place where you can be tortured by someone on your side.”