May 21, 2012
By Sgt. Marc Loi
FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan — Sitting in a makeshift wooden living area on a dusty military base in southern Afghanistan, 2nd Lt. Darius Chen begins rattling off things for which he is thankful.
There is the blanket with the imprints of California’s landmarks sitting on the twin-size bed in which he sleeps. There is the education he received from the University of San Francisco and the experiences with classmates Chen said helped him become the person he is today.
Then, there are the historical perspectives few other United States Army officers can claim they are thankful for: Chen is a first-generation Asian-American whose parents and grandparents uprooted their homes in China to move to Taiwan during the Communists’ takeover, and then again to America in search of a better life.
These experiences, along with being part of one of the smallest demographics of people serving in the U.S. military — Asian-Americans comprise about 2.5 percent of the military’s population — make Chen, a medical platoon leader with the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., not only thankful for the life he now has, but also a story worthy to highlight as the United States military celebrates Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
“My grandparents left China during the communist takeover,” Chen said. “My parents were first-generation Taiwanese — I am first-generation American. Through their stories of uprooting generations of their families because they did not have a home, I am extremely grateful for the beautiful upbringing I had.”
That upbringing, along with his parents’ commitment to teach him to be thankful for America, eventually brought the Huntington Beach, Calif., native to the University of San Francisco, where he ultimately decided to join the ROTC program to become a United States Army medical officer.
“My parents raised me to love this country — they taught me a sense of pride and ownership of America,” Chen said. “Joining the Army seemed to be the most practical and beneficial [choice] when I went to college.”
Along with these experiences, another reason that propelled the 22-year-old to become the first person in his immediate family to join the Army was one that came about not as a young child when he often dreamed of being a Soldier, but later in life, on the sprawling campus of USF, where he often saw fellow students speak about the military with disdain — an action Chen said he could not understand or agree with.
“It certainly wasn’t the conventional college experience, but it helped me experience every perspective on hand — and that’s what college should be about,” he said. “I was in ROTC, going to school with a bunch of young college hippies — and back in 2007 and 2008, there was a lot of skepticism and ridicule about the military — being in the military was taboo.
“I remember thinking that it wasn’t right to be ridiculing people who were representing our country,” he added. “That’s one of the other reasons I joined.”
Yet another reason –one deeply tied with his experiences as the son of immigrants, is the realization that the comforts and luxuries Americans are afforded aren’t automatic, and that at times, have to be fought for.
“The world is a chaotic place,” Chen said. “The comfort that we enjoy in the first world isn’t necessarily something everyone else in the world enjoys — it has to be fought for.”
Because of this, Chen said he believes service — whether to country or community, as part of an organization or as an individual, is paramount to the human experience — as a way to better oneself and the world at the same time.
“The beauty is we don’t have to if we don’t want to,” Chen said. “It doesn’t have to be military service — but some kind of service — adding to the pot. It not only builds character, but also exposes one to a different way of life.”
In southern Afghanistan, Chen’s service consists of ensuring the team of medics he oversees is ready to provide care for injured Soldiers and civilians — those from NATO countries and local to Afghanistan.
For Chen, a young college graduate just 10 months into his military enlistment, this service is especially meaningful because it helps positively affect the lives of others, he said. It’s also a type of service that always works better when approached from a personal perspective.
“My medics are the guys doing the work, I just have the privilege of taking charge of the platoon,” he said. “I am the one who plans the medical concept of support and each time, regardless of who they are, I always picture the person on the ground, I always picture the person carrying their buddy to the helicopter landing zone.”
While such service might bring one prestige in America, here in Afghanistan, where each Soldier wears the same uniform and operates under anonymity, Chen works seven days a week and his reward is a tiny, wooden living quarters that seems to shake each time the wind blows. Despite this Spartan life, Chen said he is thankful for his living conditions and focused on the mission — partly because of what he learned from the military.
“The military taught me to be grateful for things that truly matter,” he said. “I’ve been out here two months — I started out sleeping on a cot — now I have a mattress to sleep on, a place to live and food to eat — I can work all day.”
Work and a sense of gratefulness, said Chen, have been a source of pride for his parents, who reacted begrudgingly upon news of his becoming a Soldier, but have since relented and now support his career ambitions.
“My mom holds her head high knowing that I am doing meaningful, relevant work,” Chen said. “She has no doubts of my reasons for being here.”
Another reason Chen and his parents are proud of the career he now has is that as one of the few Asian-Americans in the military, he also serves as a role model for other youths of Asian-American descent.
“A lot of people will ridicule the Army, but here’s the bottom line: if you don’t get involved, nothing will change. If you don’t join, you’ll just stand back and ridicule a system you are too afraid to be a part of.
“I am proud to be an Asian-American serving in the military,” he said. “As a leader, I stop sexism and racism where I see it — I am not one to stand back and ridicule a system.”