He was the only son or daughter of first-generation Chinese Americans in New York City. He desired to join the Army, but he needed parental permission as a 17-year-old. His parents disapproved. Chen had high test scores and received a complete scholarship to go to college. In January 2011, at 18 years old, while still in college and against his mother’s wishes, he enlisted in the Army being an infantryman.
By October 2011, at a forward operating base in Afghanistan, Pvt. Danny Chen lay dead at 19, maybe not by the hand of an expected US combat foe, but by an enemy a lot more insidious — the ugly and irrational idea that one American is preferable to another in line with the color of these skin.
Soon after Chen enlisted in the Army and completed basic training, the private snipes started. The typical assimilation of soldiers from all cultures of America had not developed among those on the team to which Chen was assigned. His “teammates” were cruel to him. Once deployed, the tempo of engagement increased.
In his final act of desperation, Chen chambered a round, squeezed the trigger and put a bullet through his head.
As the Director of Personnel for the Army, it had been my sad and heavyhearted duty to meet up with Danny Chen’s family afterward. As a parent myself of African American and Japanese American descent and father of an only son or daughter, I could maybe not imagine the pain with this Chinese American mother and father. I recall Chen’s mother asking, “How could this happen in the US Army?” Quietly, I wondered the same.
Out of all great American institutions, the military has served as a vast socio-cultural equalizer, a melting pot of cultures. My African American father served being an enlisted soldier in a segregated Army, and I had the ability to serve as an Army General Officer. The military has been a beacon of a cure for many minorities where service members get a fair shot based solely on their performance. Yet despite its strong efforts even our military still confronts the stubborn racism that accompanies and dogs a number of its young recruits, further weighing down our nation and putting it in danger.
Serving for 38 years, I came to love the Army, which I see as an incredibly positive force. However, like other minorities, I have experienced racial bias from the others in the military sometimes, I believe, because it’s not common for them to see African Americans in senior leadership positions.
One moment that sticks out if you ask me is when I was attempting to purchase General Officer rank for my uniform, and the receptionist said to me, as she was walking away, that “only the General Officer and the aide can purchase the rank.” I contacted the manager to spell out what happened and to make my purchase.
Another incident happened while I was at a military base with my son. We were parked in a “Colonel and above” space and I was in civilian clothes and at the time serving as a 2-Star general. A white woman parked beside us, looked at the sign after which at me and my son. My son was sure that the girl thought we weren’t in the right place. When I offered to show her my identification, she yelled, “No, you can show it to the police. You’re illegally parked.” When law enforcement arrived fleetingly thereafter, I showed them my identification card, plus they were very apologetic. I asked them, “What exactly did the woman say that led you to believe she was correct in saying that I was illegally parked?” They didn’t have an answer. I knew the clear answer could only be “how we looked.”
Racism affects our nation’s soldiers by weakening unit cohesion and, eventually, is self-defeating.
If the US Army with its laser focus on the ability of diversity can fail, any organization can fail. As the former Commanding General people Army Recruiting Command, it had been my responsibility to ensure the Army recruited great Americans like Chen. New recruits should be shaped and nurtured to embrace diversity and teamwork, while treating others with dignity and respect, if we are to keep up a powerful fighting force.
It was also my responsibility to ensure we didn’t recruit racists as evidenced by certain tattoos, organizational affiliations, and past misconduct. Still, there are several racists in our ranks, and the military must continue to root out racism and address racist acts to the fullest extent of what the law states.
I believe that most American adults are not racists, but even as we have seen in so many tragic events, discrimination exists in many forms. Leadership at the national level is imperative. Law enforcement must reform, and cultural change needs to occur across all of municipality, in board rooms, in schools and deep in to our communities. Addressing racism begins in our domiciles, at our schools and on our streets, where large numbers of our young people continue steadily to exercise the rights we defend to show peacefully in hope of making a more just and better America.
Young folks are not born racist. They learn it. Martin Luther King Jr. hoped his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” a robust idea with which America must arm itself contrary to the same unrelenting enemy that killed Pvt. Danny Chen.