Memorializing the soldier who never came home
UB students attend the Danny Chen Project to memorialize hazing victim
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
On Wednesday night, hundreds of students dressed in black and white congregated to Knox 20 to pay tribute to a soldier who was driven to commit suicide after enduring months of bullying and hazing from his superiors. As they filled the lecture hall, a white tri-fold board that said, “We Are Danny Chen,” stood in front of the room and faced all in attendance.
The four words symbolized how Chen represented the numerous victims of racially motivated torment and injustice, and how the 19-year-old could’ve easily been one of the attendees’ roommate. He was accepted to UB, but committed suicide in a guard tower in Afghanistan before he attended his first class.
Wednesday’s Danny Chen Project – hosted by the Asian American Student Union (AASU) – marked the one-year anniversary of his death. Students from eight Greek organizations and multiple Student Association clubs poured in to support AASU’s cause.
Nelson Yu, a senior urban public policy major and president of AASU, was surprised by the event’s large turnout. The event was originally going to be a small general body meeting, but it eventually grew into a full-scale event because of the increasing support of fellow SA clubs. The event’s Facebook page listed 175 participants, but Yu estimated at least 400 people came.
“Slowly it just grew so big that it was overwhelming,” Yu said. “It was very last minute … but all our planning went well.”
The Danny Chen Project served as both a vigil service and an educational presentation. AASU also pointed out two more soldiers who were driven to suicide because of hazing: United States Marine Corps Lance Corporal Harry Lew – who in 2011 shot himself in the same foxhole his fellow Marines forced him to dig during four hours of intense physical abuse – and Specialist Brushaun Anderson, who killed himself in a portable toilet on New Years’ Day 2010 after constant torment from his superiors.
The combination of sobering facts and solemnity led to a particularly emotional moment when Banny Chen, Danny’s cousin and a sophomore art major, spoke to the audience.
Banny paused a few times to hold back tears as he told his experience: how he angrily threw the phone against the wall when he got the call confirming his cousin’s death, traveling to Manhattan and having to complete necessary paperwork for his Chinese-speaking family and how news trickled in about Danny being driven to suicide instead of dying in combat.
“During that time, I didn’t know what to do. It was all a new experience for me,” Banny said. “I felt that way for a whole week until they brought Danny’s body back from Afghanistan in an open casket to check it. That’s when I started realizing that this is not a joke; this is actually happening.”
This was his first time telling the story to an audience. The Prezi slides behind him revealed the details. They mentioned Adam Holcomb – the sergeant who threw Danny off his bunk bed headfirst and dragged him 40 feet along sharp gravel while he was knocked unconscious – and the three others who partook in the hazing. They also showed the relatively light consequences. Holcomb was sentenced to a short time in prison and ordered to pay $1,000 for his role in Danny’s death. All four soldiers still serve in the army.
Rob Zillig, an honorably discharged USMC Infantry Corporal and Occupy Marines (a human rights group) administrator, and Phillip Kwon, a UB alumnus and army sergeant, also spoke on their experiences in the armed forces. They, too, have come face-to-face with the hazing epidemic.
“I saw hazing based on race. I saw hazing based on pretty much anything that made people stick out,” Zillig said. “I saw hazing based on people being thought of as weak. I was hazed myself multiple times; I was physically abused for refusing an unauthorized order. It doesn’t have to be like that.
“The brave people in our armed services, they protect us, but when it comes down to it there’s really no one watching their backs.”
The presentations affected all who felt a connection with Danny, who could’ve been a fellow UB classmate. Xuan Ming Ryan Teng, a senior business major and vice president of Singapore SA, said the presentations – especially Banny’s – resonated with him.
Members of Nu Alpha Phi, an Asian-interest fraternity, came to the Danny Chen Project because they felt a special connection to the fallen soldier. Danny and a majority of the fraternity resided in New York City.
David Huang, a senior chemical engineering major and member of Nu Alpha Phi, heard about Chen’s suicide right after it happened unlike a lot of UB students. However, Huang isn’t surprised by the lack of awareness as he feels they’ve become desensitized to violence because of its overexposure.