Pvt. Danny Chen, 1992–2011
He was 19 years old, a scrawny six-four, and wanted nothing more than to join the Army. Just like so many other young men. But very few from Chinatown.
by Jennifer Gonnerman, Jan. 6, 2011
New York Magazine
On the evening of October 3, 2011, Su Zhen Chen heard a knock at the door. In the hallway outside her apartment on Avenue D stood three soldiers. Su Zhen doesn’t speak English, and none of the men spoke Taishanese. She couldn’t understand what they were telling her, but figured it must have something to do with her 19-year-old son, Danny, an Army private stationed in Afghanistan. She called her brother in Staten Island, and he handed the phone to his wife, Melissa, who speaks fluent English.
The soldier on the other end of the line asked her who she was, then quickly got to the point: “Can you tell Danny’s parents that Danny died?” Danny had been on guard duty, the soldier told his aunt, and had been found with a gunshot to his head. “He’s dead,” he said. “Can you tell his mother that?”
Melissa turned to her husband. “What am I supposed to say?”
“Just say whatever you heard.”
So she did, telling Danny’s mother, “They said he died. He had a gunshot to his head.”
At first, Danny’s mother did not seem to understand. “Okay,” she said. “He has a gunshot to his head. Is he okay?”
“No,” Melissa said. “He’s dead.”
Slowly, the news sunk in. In Staten Island, on the other end of the phone line, Su Zhen’s relatives could hear the sound of a long, tortured scream.
Danny’s mother had never wanted him to become a soldier. If it had been up to her, after high school he would have attended a college close to home and grown up to be something else, something safer.
Maybe a pharmacist. Danny was her only child, born in 1992, just five years after she’d immigrated to New York City from the Taishan region of China and three years after she brought over her husband. Growing up in Chinatown, Danny had always seemed an exemplary son: obedient, studious, devoted. And very attached to his mother. While Danny’s father, Yan Tao Chen, had put in ten-hour days working in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants, his mother had been the one who raised him.
She didn’t want to see him join the Army, and made it known. Danny told his best friend, Raymond Dong, that he feared his mother might disown him if he enlisted, so he signed up without telling her first. But Raymond agreed with Su Zhen; he too thought Danny would be better off sticking around New York and earning a degree, maybe at Baruch College, where he’d taken prep courses the summer after high school. “You could do a lot better than join the Army,” he told Danny.
“You’re so smart.” It was true: During his senior year, Danny would fall asleep in math class, wake up when the teacher called on him, and still give the right answer.
But in a community of immigrant strivers, Danny wanted something different for himself. During his senior year, while everyone else was polishing their college applications, he was dreaming about the Army. Many Chinese-American families with just one son won’t let him join the military, since sons are so highly prized in their culture. But this did not deter Danny. “I want to live for myself,” he told Raymond, “not for someone else.”
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Filed under: Resources | Tagged: Afghanistan, Army, Chinese-American, Combat, Deployment, Fort Wainwright, Hazing, Infantry, Military, Military Suicide, New York City, Pvt. Danny Chen, Su Zhen Chen, Suicide, Suicide prevention, Taishan Cina, War, Yan Tao Chen |