Fellow soldiers at a base in Georgia teased him about his Chinese name, crying out "Chen!" in an exaggerated Asian accent. They called him "Jackie Chen," a reference to the Hollywood action star Jackie Chan. People would ask him repeatedly if he was Chinese, even though he was a native New Yorker.
At one point Chen wrote in his diary that he was running out of jokes to respond with.
Then he was sent overseas, and the hazing began: Soldiers dragged him across a floor, pelted him with stones and forced him to hold liquid in his mouth while hanging upside down, according to diary entries and other accounts cited by a community activist.
On Oct. 3, the 19-year-old Chen was found dead in a guardhouse in Afghanistan with what the Army said was apparently a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
On Wednesday, the Army announced charges against eight soldiers in his death, saying Chen was a victim of illegal hazing. Five of those accused were charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. The alleged offenses also included maltreatment, assault and threats.
The military would not discuss the exact circumstances surrounding Chen's death. But family members and community activists said they suspect the bullying may have driven him to suicide.
"Whether suicide or homicide, those responsible for mistreating Danny are responsible for his death," said Elizabeth OuYang, a community activist who is representing his parents, Chinese immigrants who live near New York City's Chinatown neighborhood.
Attorneys for the defendants could not immediately be located. The sister of one of them had no comment. Other relatives could not be reached.
Eugene Fidell, an expert on military law and former president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said bullying has been a recurring problem for the military.
"If there was brutality within the unit, that's a betrayal of the bond of brotherhood," he said. "That is, in theory, the underpinning of what holds a military command together."
He added: "Can I imagine somebody being bullied in the military to the point of taking his or her own life? Yes. These people are young people. You're at an age of vulnerability as well as strength."
In 2010, three Army sergeants were punished after Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm of Willard, Ohio, killed himself 10 days after arriving in Iraq with a platoon based in Fort Bliss, Texas. Wilhelm's family said he was being bullied and forced to run for miles with rocks in his pockets.
Two sergeants were imprisoned for six months and three months, respectively, on charges of cruelty and maltreatment. The third was convicted of obstructing justice and given a one-grade reduction in pay.
Activists said Chen's case has highlighted the military's poor treatment of Asian-Americans, who remain a tiny percentage of new recruits even as the percentage of blacks, Hispanics, women and other groups has grown.
Pentagon officials would not comment Wednesday on the specifics of the case. But Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby said hazing is not tolerated.
"That's what this uniform requires. And when we don't, there's a justice system in place to deal with it," Kirby said. "That's what we're seeing here in the case of Private Chen."
The details of Chen's alleged hazing came from Facebook and email messages, discussions with cousins and a few pages of Chen's journal released by the Army, OuYang said at a Chinatown news conference.
Chen's relatives said they were encouraged by the charges.
"We realize that Danny will never return, but it gives us some hope," Yen Tao Chen, his father, said through a translator.
Chen was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
The Army identified the soldiers charged as 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, 25, of Maryland (no hometown was given); Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, 35, of Port Arthur, Texas; Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, 26, of Aberdeen, S.D.; Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, 29, of Youngstown, Ohio; Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, 26, of Brooklyn, Iowa; Spc. Thomas P. Curtis, 25, of Hendersonville, Tenn; Spc. Ryan J. Offutt, 32, of Greenville, Pa.; and Sgt. Travis F. Carden, 24, of Fowler, Ind.
VanBockel, Holcomb, Hurst, Curtis and Offutt were charged with the most serious offenses, including involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, and assault and battery.
Offutt's mother, Carol Tate of Sharon, Pa., told The (Sharon) Herald that she has known about the charges for a while and has talked to her son.
"I think there's a lot of things that really haven't been brought up," she said, but declined further comment.
Schwartz, the only officer among the accused, was charged with dereliction of duty.
The two most serious charges, involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, carry prison sentences of up to 10 years and three years, respectively, under military law.
The soldiers are still in Afghanistan but have been relieved of their duties and confined to a different base, the military said. The next step is a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for a court martial. The proceedings are expected to be held in Afghanistan.