Editor’s Note: Lt. Gen. (U.S. Army, retired) Thomas P. Bostick, a PhD and graduate of West Point, Stanford University and George Washington University, was Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the US Army Corps of Engineers (2012-2016). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
With images of statues being torn down bombarding our screens, it’s hard not to feel, as a minority myself, that America is failing to address the real problem of racism. As I grapple with the wider challenges that racism presents for our country, its national security and myself personally, I continue to be haunted by my memories of a young US Army enlisted soldier named Danny Chen.
He was the only child of first-generation Chinese Americans in New York City. He wanted to join the Army, but he needed parental permission as a 17-year-old. His parents disapproved. Chen had high test scores and received a full scholarship to attend college. In January 2011, at 18 years old, while still in college and against his mother’s wishes, he enlisted in the Army as an infantryman.
By October 2011, at a forward operating base in Afghanistan, Pvt. Danny Chen lay dead at 19, not by the hand of an expected US combat foe, but by an enemy even more insidious – the ugly and irrational idea that one American is better than another based on the color of their skin.
Soon after Chen enlisted in the Army and completed basic training, the personal snipes started. The typical assimilation of soldiers from all cultures of America had not developed among those on the team to which Chen was assigned. His “teammates” were cruel to him. Once deployed, the tempo of engagement increased.
They referred to him as “dragon lady,” among other racial slurs, according to court documents. Members of Chen’s squad dragged him out into the open during the middle of the night, made him low-crawl over gravel as they threw rocks at him and screamed expletives. Night after night, week after week, Chen experienced this terrible treatment.
In his final act of desperation, Chen chambered a round, squeezed the trigger and put a bullet through his head.
As the Director of Personnel for the Army, it was my sad and heavyhearted duty to meet with Danny Chen’s family afterward. As a parent myself of African American and Japanese American descent and father of an only child, I could not imagine the pain of this Chinese American mother and father. I recall Chen’s mother asking, “How could this happen in the US Army?” Quietly, I wondered the same.
Eight soldiers were charged in connection with Chen’s death. Seven were convicted through military courts martial and one was handled through an Article 15, which is a non-judicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Out of all the great American institutions, the military has served as a vast socio-cultural equalizer, a melting pot of cultures. My African American father served as an enlisted soldier in a segregated Army, and I had the opportunity to serve as an Army General Officer. The military has been a beacon of hope for many minorities where service members receive a fair shot based solely on their performance. Yet despite its strong efforts even our military still confronts the stubborn racism that accompanies and dogs some of its young recruits, further weighing down our nation and putting it at risk.
Serving for 38 years, I came to love the Army, which I see as an incredibly positive force. However, like other minorities, I have experienced racial bias from others in the military sometimes, I believe, because it’s not common for them to see African Americans in senior leadership positions.
One moment that sticks out to me is when I was attempting to purchase General Officer rank for my uniform, and the receptionist said to me, as she was walking away, that “only the General Officer and the aide can purchase the rank.” I contacted the manager to explain what happened and to make my purchase.
Another incident happened while I was at a military base with my son. We were parked in a “Colonel and above” space and I was in civilian clothes and at the time serving as a 2-Star general. A white woman parked beside us, looked at the sign and then at me and my son. My son was sure that the woman thought we weren’t in the right place. When I offered to show her my identification, she yelled, “No, you can show it to the police. You’re illegally parked.” When the police arrived shortly thereafter, I showed them my identification card, and they were very apologetic. I asked them, “What exactly did the woman say that led you to believe she was correct in saying that I was illegally parked?” They didn’t have an answer. I knew the answer could only be “how we looked.”
Racism affects our nation’s soldiers by weakening unit cohesion and, ultimately, is self-defeating.
If the US Army with its laser focus on the power of diversity can fail, any organization can fail. As the former Commanding General of US Army Recruiting Command, it was my responsibility to ensure the Army recruited great Americans like Chen. New recruits must be shaped and nurtured to embrace diversity and teamwork, while treating others with dignity and respect, if we are to maintain a powerful fighting force.
It was also my responsibility to ensure that we did not recruit racists as evidenced by certain tattoos, organizational affiliations, and past misconduct. Still, there are some racists in our ranks, and the military must continue to root out racism and address racist acts to the fullest extent of the law.
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I believe that most American adults are not racists, but as we have seen in so many tragic events, discrimination exists in many forms. Leadership at the national level is imperative. Law enforcement must reform, and cultural change needs to occur across every part of local government, in board rooms, in schools and deep into our communities. Addressing racism begins in our homes, at our schools and on our streets, where large numbers of our young people continue to exercise the rights we defend to demonstrate peacefully in hope of creating a more just and better America.
Young people are not born racist. They learn it. Martin Luther King Jr. hoped his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” a powerful idea with which America must arm itself against the same unrelenting enemy that killed Pvt. Danny Chen.