By Samantha Test
Northwest Asian Weekly
Asian Americans have fought for the United States for as far back as the 19th century, fighting in both World Wars, the Cold War, Gulf War, and others. Despite the reported difficulties after the Iraq invasion that army recruiters — particularly those in Seattle — faced in enlisting new recruits, recent statistics have shown that more Asian Americans from populated areas like Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York are enlisting in the military.
A spike in the number of Asian American recruits was reported in Los Angeles County in 2009, around the time when the recession still weighed on the public conscience.
A 2010 report from NPR cited the army’s educational benefits as an important reason why more Asian Americans are drawn to the army. But the public would soon begin to hear about Asian Americans in the military in a different, more unfortunate context.
Ending it all for good
Last October, 19-year-old U.S. Army Pvt. Danny Chen was found dead in a guard tower, where he had been stationed in Afghanistan. The Chinese American, New York native died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Chen, the only Chinese American in his unit, was taunted regularly with racial slurs and subjected to excessive physical punishment for forgetting to turn off the water heater after a shower. Deployed in August, the bullying had stretched as far back as the previous April, when Chen finished basic training.
“Everyone here jokingly makes fun of me for being Asian,” he wrote in a letter to his parents.
Two days later, he wrote in another letter home, “People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time. I’m running out of jokes to come back at them.”
At around the same time, 21-year-old Marine Lance Cpt. Harry Lew also took his own life. Lew, of Santa Clara, Calif., shot himself with his machine gun after an incident of severe hazing at the hands of his fellow Marines.
His crime was falling asleep on duty, a serious offense that put the lives of his unit in danger.
Lew and his unit were stationed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Despite measures taken by his superiors to allow him more rest, Lew continually fell asleep at times when enemy attack was considered imminent. Consequently, Lew was subjected to physical hazing, threats, and humiliation before he ended it all for good.
The stories of Chen and Lew have generated strong reactions in Asian American communities across the country. Scrutiny of the factors that led to each soldier’s death has started important conversations about issues of isolation and the fine line between discipline and hazing.
Lt. Dan Choi, a former Army officer and Iraq War veteran who was kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, spoke to Public Radio International in December about how Chen and Lew may have felt as two of the few Asian Americans in the military.
“You don’t know if there’s anyone in the chain of command who will go to bat for you if there’s a problem,” said Choi. “Being an Asian American serving in the military, it’s very isolating.”
Choi put up with a lot of bullying that may have been similar to what Chen experienced. And he put up with it for the 10 years he served. Choi told PRI that he ignored a lot of the racism going on around him, and that he even took part in some of it because he wanted to fit in.
“I wanted to joke and make other people feel comfortable,” he said. “In the Army, you’re taught [that] if you stick out, there will be consequences. If you look different, you’re starting off with that additional burden and that stress.”
The military experience varies for Asian Americans, explains Ed*, a Vietnamese American Marine sergeant from Fountain Valley, Calif.
“My personality is really outgoing. I grew up in a multicultural background. There might be those who come from more traditional families, and it might be harder for them,” said Ed.
“Kids should research [this option] more. They might not know what they’re jumping into. They should talk it over with their families and make sure that it’s right. It’s a life-changing decision.”
Ed, joined the Marines 10 years ago, after he finished high school. He was uncertain of where he wanted to go in life, and after seeing a commercial for the Marines, he considered enlisting.
Since enlisting, he has served in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan.
“I expected some hazing, kind of like what I always saw in movies. But in the Marine Corps, we’re pretty much equal. We all start on the same level,” said Ed.
“How we’re trained is that we’re pretty much one team, one fight.”
Chinese American veteran Tim Hsia notes, in a January post for the New York Times’ “At War” blog, the many visible Asian American leaders in the military.
“I cite not only Gen. Eric Shinseki, a former Army Chief of Staff, but also the fact that my current commanding officer (a lieutenant colonel) is Asian American. Additionally, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated Army units ever, was composed primarily of Japanese Americans,” said Hsia.
Public supervision and outcry
The presence of Asian American military leaders and the increased recognition of Asian military veterans may ensure a continued increase in Asian American military participation.
According to a news release by West Point Academy, roughly 26 percent of the incoming 2014 class members are minorities. Asian Pacific Islander Americans make up anywhere from 9 to 16 percent of the classes of 2014 at West Point, the Air Force Academy, and the Naval Academy.
Data show that 43,479 Asian Americans, about 3.7 percent, were on active duty in 2010, a comparatively small group but one that is still growing. The increased visibility of Asian Americans in the military means greater involvement by Asian communities to supervise the treatment of these soldiers. Large public outcry from Asian American communities had quickly cast the cases of Chen and Lew into the national spotlight and served as a wake-up call to address hazing and racism in the military.
Three Marines charged in the event of Lance Cpt. Harry Lew’s death have already faced trial.
Lance Cpl. Jacob Jacoby was sentenced in January to 30 days in the brig and demoted to private. Sgt. Benjamin Johns and Lance Cpl. Carlos Orozco were found not guilty of violating a lawful order by wrongfully humiliating and demeaning Lew. In the meantime, those following Chen’s case must wait for his unit, which deployed to southern Afghanistan in August 2011, to end its rotation and return to its base at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Five of the eight soldiers were charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, the first time such serious charges have been brought in this type of case. (end)
*Subject has chosen to be identified by pseudonym.
Samantha Test can be reached at email@example.com.