A senator is calling on the Defense Department to conduct a system-wide review of alleged hazing incidents in the military, after eight soldiers in Afghanistan were charged in connection with the death of Army Pvt. Danny Chen, who apparently committed suicide in October.
Chen had told family and friends that he was the target of persistent racial taunts and abusive treatment by his comrades in arms.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, requested the investigation due to concern that Chen's death is a reflection of a larger problem of military hazing.
"I cannot imagine what [Chen's parents] are going through as they mourn the senseless loss of their son," Gillibrand said. "No soldier should have to mentally or physically fear another soldier. There is no room for discrimination and mistreatment in our military. We need to ensure that those responsible for this type of abuse are held accountable and we must take steps to prevent any more tragedies from happening."
"It is outrageous that any man or woman serving our country would be subject to discrimination or harassment," she wrote in a letter to Dr. Joanne Rooney, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.
Margaret Chin, a City Council member in New York City, Chen's home town, expressed her outrage as well.
"When we send our sons and daughters to serve our country, we expect them to be treated equally, fairly and protected," Chin told ABC News.
Chen's cousin read a letter he received from the private that said Chen was constantly bullied for being Chinese.
"They asked if I'm from China a few times a day," the letter read.
The Army did not say whether the eight soldiers charged actually killed Chen or whether their mistreatment of Chen caused him to kill himself.
Elizabeth OuYang from the Organization of Chinese Americans, who had details of Chen's mistreatment, said either way, she believes there is no question who is to blame for his death.
"Those responsible for mistreating Danny caused his death," OuYang said.
"They called him 'Jackie Chen.' That was one of his nicknames. He said, 'I don't know how this all started, but it's best not to respond. I'm running out of jokes to respond after them,'" she said.
Minority advocates have long been concerned about the treatment of Asian Americans in the military. Asian-Americans make up about 5 percent of the U.S. population, but historically have stayed away from the military, making up less than 3 percent of all military recruits.
Chen was the second Asian American to die of apparent suicide in Afghanistan this year. In April, Lance Cpl. Harry Lew of California shot himself after his fellow Marines subjected him to brutal hazing. The Marines in the case were court-martialed in October for their involvement in his death.
Capt. John Kirby, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense, would not comment directly on the case but was asked if safeguards are in place to prevent such activity.
"We treat each other with dignity and respect," Kirby said. "That's what this uniform requires. And when we don't, there's a justice system in place to deal with it."
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