When he arrived, Chen was at the bottom of the social hierarchy: a newcomer to his unit, a lowly private, still just a teenager, in a combat zone for the first time. And the only Chinese-American in his platoon. In a meeting with Chen’s parents on January 4, Army officials said that his superiors had considered him not fit enough when he arrived, and singled him out for excessive physical exercise: push-ups, flutter-kicks, sit-ups, sprints done while carrying a sandbag. Such punishments resemble the “smokings” that drill sergeants mete out at basic training to correct mistakes. But, in Chen’s case, it wasn’t long before this campaign of “corrective training” escalated into sheer brutality.
The eight men later charged in connection with his death are all white and range in age from 24 to 35; they include one lieutenant, two staff sergeants, three sergeants, and two specialists. Members of this group allegedly harassed and humiliated Chen from almost the day he arrived at The Palace. They belittled him with racial slurs. They forced him to do push-ups with a mouthful of water, refusing to let him swallow or spit any out. And, on September 27, a sergeant allegedly yanked him out of bed and dragged him across about 50 yards of gravel toward a shower trailer as punishment for supposedly breaking the hot-water pump. He endured bruises and cuts on his back. Army officials told Chen’s family that although the leader of his platoon found out about this incident, he never reported it as he was required to.
One week later, on the morning of October 3, Chen was scheduled to report for guard duty at 7:30 a.m. But when he got to the guard tower, he realized he’d forgotten his helmet and didn’t have enough water. A superior sent him back to the trailer to get what he needed, then allegedly forced him to crawl, with all his equipment, across some 100 meters of gravel in order to return to the tower so he could start his shift. While he was on the ground, two other superiors pelted him with rocks. And once he reached the tower, a superior grabbed him by his body armor and dragged him up the steps.
He entered the tower at about 8 a.m. The soldier he was relieving asked him if he was okay. “No sweat,” Chen answered. The other soldier left. At 11:13, from inside the tower, the sound of a gunshot echoed through the Palace
These days, inside the Chens’ apartment, the loudest sound is the hum of the two fish tanks in the living room. For the past three months, a shrine to Danny Chen has been sitting atop a foldout table in the corner of this room. A framed photo of him in his dress blues looks out over a scented candle, a vase of lilies, the folded-up American flag that once covered his casket, a folded-up Alaska flag (sent by the governor of Alaska), a few medals, and a thick pile of condolence letters typed on official stationery—from the secretary of the Army, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of Defense.
In the center, a plate holds Danny’s favorite foods. One morning in December, there are cookies, clementines, and an open bag of Skittles. A few packets of ketchup are visible underneath, at the bottom of the plate, left over from earlier meals. His mother changes the offering every few days, usually American food, since that’s what he preferred: sometimes Burger King, sometimes Subway, sometimes pizza. Two plastic bottles—one Coke, one water—stand next to the plate.
Down the hallway, inside his bedroom, the doorway still shows the marks he made recording his high-school growth spurt. His collection of video games—mostly shooter games like Dead Space and Left 4 Dead—line a shelf above his desk. And now three plastic crates cover the bedroom floor, each filled with clothes that were shipped back from Afghanistan.
For his mother, walking by this empty room every day has become too painful to bear; she and her husband have put in for a transfer to move to another apartment. On an afternoon not too long ago, she and Danny’s father showed me into Danny’s room. His mother remained in the hallway, a tissue in one hand. When asked how she is holding up in the wake of her son’s death, she lifts the tissue to her eyes. “I’d rather go with him,” she says.