THE SENSELESS DEATH OF PRIVATE DANNY CHEN
by Andy Weddington
Friday, 23 December 2011
"Hope is a necessity for a normal life and the major weapon against the suicide impulse." Karl A. Menninger
On Tuesday, 04 October 2011, the following notification appeared in my email inbox:
"The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Pvt. Danny Chen, 19, of New York, died Oct. 3 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Wainwright, Alaska. For more information the media may contact the U.S. Army Alaska public affairs office at 907-384-2072."
After reading the official release, though much like every other one I receive, I thought it odd there was no mention of the circumstances surrounding his death--for nearly all include brief comment of wounds suffered during combat operations or that death was non-hostile. The absence of comment nagged me as I filed the release with the hundreds of others. For whatever reason, Private Chen's name stuck with me.
A few days ago I happened upon an article about Private Chen. What I read was disturbing. And it brought back a memory of an encounter I had with a young Marine some 20 years ago. More about that young Marine later.
Private Danny Chen, U. S. Army died while on duty in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He died from a gunshot wound; self-inflicted. But why?
Why would a young man who voluntarily swore an oath to serve his country, knowing damn well he'd find himself in combat, commit suicide?
The answer? Eight soldiers, including an officer--a lieutenant, from Private Chen's unit are facing charges of dereliction of duty; assault; negligent homicide; and involuntary manslaughter. An article in today's paper noted, "On Wednesday, the Army announced the charges against the eight soldiers in his death, saying Chen was a victim of illegal hazing."
As an administrative note I'm going to give the reporter who authored the article (specifically that sentence) the benefit of the doubt as to not thinking about what they wrote. That is, the redundancy of "illegal hazing."
Private Chen's death remains under investigation so there's little to address, at this time, other than the core of the hazing was aimed at his Chinese ancestry, included hurtful name calling, and allegedly he was forced to do things, that served no useful purpose whatsoever, meant to be physically uncomfortable. And there may be more. Probably.
Private Chen was an infantryman in a platoon (in a company; in a regiment; in a brigade; in a division). I know something about that life--not in the Army but in the Marine Corps. There's a difference but then again much is the same. The questions that first came to mind, "Where were his noncommissioned officers (team and squad leaders)?"; "Where was his staff noncommissioned officer (platoon sergeant)?"; and "Where was his officer (platoon commander)?" And, what was the command climate, tone from the top, in the company, battalion, regiment, brigade, and even division?
From information released to the public thus far one can only surmise his "leaders" at the platoon level were party to the hazing. If that is in fact the case, where is a young, inexperienced soldier to turn for help? His chain of command is there for his well-being--24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If his enlisted "leadership" fails he has a platoon commander, a commissioned officer, to handle problems. Or that's the way it's supposed to work.
Was the hazing so severe, delivered at the hands of his platoon leadership, that he lost faith and hope and saw no other way out? Was he immature? Was he unstable? Was he dealing with other personal problems? Did a collective of life's problems--back home and in Afghanistan, for a young man in a combat zone, make for perfect circumstances that ended with an irrational, irreversible, decision? Who knows. Maybe the Army's investigation will get to the bottom of it. Until that hard look is complete and the accused have had their day in court it'd be improper to assail them. But something was wrong. Something was seriously wrong. And whatever the scope, it needs to be sorted out, adjudicated, and a clear message sent to the force.
I have strong feelings about hazing. Despite what anyone offers in defense of said practices, and whether a civilian social club, fraternity, or military outfit, hazing serves no useful purpose. Hazing is contrary to good order and discipline. Hazing destroys trust and loyalty. Hazing disrupts teamwork. And in military units hazing degrades a unit's combat readiness and effectiveness. And I could go on and on but the point made.
Now for that young Marine...
It just so happened I was walking along a hallway and noticed a young Marine clad in camouflage utilities mopping the deck--he was doing a lousy job because he was trying to mop using only one arm (as I recall, his right arm). With little control of the mop, he was making more of a mess than anything else. I didn't know the Marine. He didn't work for me. And he was not in my unit. Regardless, I stopped him and asked about his arm. He said he'd injured it. He appeared hesitant to talk so I pressed. I told him to remove his blouse. His left arm was a mess--shades of yellow-green, purple, deep crimson red, bright red, black and blue, etc. It looked awful. "What happened to your arm?" He did not want to talk but finally mumbled, "I was promoted." "What?" "Sir, I was promoted to corporal last week and took quite a beating." "Have you been to sick call?" "No, sir." "Why not?" "Sir, I don't want anyone to get in trouble." "Okay. Here is what's going to happen. First, I want the name of your unit, your commanding officer, and the phone number. Second, I am ordering you to go directly to the hospital emergency room--if you need a ride, I'll take care of it. You must see a doctor immediately. Third, I will call your commanding officer and explain."
The Marine went to the hospital. I phoned his commanding officer who had no idea but wasted no time engaging. About an hour later a doctor phoned me--he thanked me for intervening and said another day or two and he doubted they could have saved the Marine's arm.
Incredible. How appalling. A young Marine works hard to earn the rank of corporal and he's "rewarded" by his unit peers, god forbid seniors, by nearly losing his arm through some stupid hazing ritual.
Such nonsense. Will it ever end? Doubtful--with the outcomes, no matter how rare the occurrences, always leaving a bad, bad impression and impact. The only way to combat hazing is through education, training, engaged leadership, and punishing the guilty.
So here we are two days from Christmas--some time earlier this year a young man voluntarily took an oath to serve his country; donned a uniform; conquered the only rite of passage required to be called a soldier--recruit training; completed advanced training; reported to an operational unit; deployed to a combat zone; and then took his life while on duty in a guard tower seemingly triggered by the cowardly behavior of his fellow soldiers; some of whom were supposed to be leading him.
And this Christmas, and for many more to come, the Chen family mourns.
Death, hostile and non-hostile, is a reality of war. And death a reality of life. But this "casualty" on the rolls from the war in Afghanistan makes no sense to me. None.
A while back I penned Commentary, that towards the end, addresses hazing. The powerful words of a Marine general put the matter of hazing in perspective.