Lawmakers probe Army recruiter suicides

Since 2001, 17 Army recruiters have committed suicide, four from a single unit -- the Houston Recruiting Battalion.

The demands of fighting two wars with an all-volunteer military have forced the Army to send battle-weary soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan directly to recruiting stations to fulfill the service's need to sign 80,000 new troops a year.

In some cases, the pressures of the assignment, coupled with combat-related stress and the isolation that comes with operating far-flung recruitment posts, becomes overwhelming. Since 2001, 17 Army recruiters have committed suicide, four from a single unit -- the Houston Recruiting Battalion.

The suicides grabbed the attention of lawmakers, who are calling for more congressional oversight of the military's recruitment process.

The series of suicides at the Houston battalion -- two within six weeks of each other last summer -- prompted Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to inquire further. On Sept. 25, he sent a letter to Army Secretary Pete Geren asking what the service was doing to prevent such deaths.

"In light of the string of recent suicides, the concept of returning soldiers from combat and reassigning them to a recruiting office may require re-evaluation," Cornyn wrote.

In response, Geren sent Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the head of Army recruiting, to brief Cornyn on his command's suicide-prevention effort. The senator wasn't satisfied. On Oct. 9, he wrote Geren a second letter to ask for a "thorough and unbiased investigation" into the Houston suicides. Cornyn said he had heard from constituents "that senior leaders within the battalion, including members of the chain of command, are interfering with official investigations and also working to cover up serious problems that evidence a toxic command climate and poor unit morale."

Geren subsequently ordered a senior officer from outside the recruiting command to conduct an investigation. After being briefed in January on the results of the three-month inquiry, Cornyn told reporters, "This is a very disturbing report." He found the report "thorough," with "no apparent attempt to sweep things under the rug."

The Army said it uncovered "no single cause for these deaths." The full report hasn't been made public because of privacy concerns. National Journal has requested a copy under the Freedom of Information Act, but it wasn't available by the time this story was published.

The Army identified a common thread in the lives of the four soldiers who committed suicide: Each was involved in a "failing" or "broken" relationship, according to the report. Some of the men's family members disagree with the Army's conclusions, contending that the stress of the job was what led to the troubled relationships and the suicides, not the other way around. Further action was needed, Cornyn said, to prevent another series of suicides at a different recruiting battalion. "This is not an isolated issue among four people who took their life in the Houston battalion, but really points to Army-wide recruiting problems," he said.

Cornyn pressed Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the panel's ranking member, to conduct hearings on the Army's recruitment practices. "I have received a tremendous outpouring of letters and calls pertaining to these issues from both Texas constituents and others," Cornyn wrote to Levin. "These individuals, many of them current or past recruiters, have informed me that these problems are not limited to the Houston Recruiting Battalion, or even the Army, and may in fact be widespread across our armed forces."

In a Jan. 30 response to Cornyn, Levin said he had asked Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., chairman of the Personnel Subcommittee, "to hold a hearing on mental health and especially suicide prevention." Levin invited Cornyn to participate, and Cornyn's office confirmed that he will.

Army Staff Sgt. Amanda Henderson knows what a Senate investigation could reveal -- she lived through it with her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Henderson. He was a recruiter for the Houston battalion before he hanged himself in a shed behind their house; his stepson discovered his body on the morning of Sept. 20, 2008. There was no suicide note.

"He was good at what he did," said Amanda Henderson, an Iraq veteran who was also a battalion recruiter. "He put 100 percent into the mission." That involved working 12-to-14-hour days, sometimes seven days a week -- whatever it took to get a prospective recruit to sign a contract and arrive "on the floor" of an Army processing facility. Patrick would miss his daughter's T-ball games, PTA meetings, and family dinners, Amanda Henderson recalled. "It took a toll, especially on our marriage."

Patrick Henderson's East Texas recruiting station was sandwiched between a tanning salon and an insurance office in a strip mall in Longview. It took a half-hour drive to get there from his home in Henderson. "He loved to speak about the infantry to those young men," Amanda Henderson said, adding that "he would tell the truth" about his military experience.

For his computer screen saver, Patrick Henderson used a photo of a mangled Humvee, which had been hit by an improvised explosive device during an attack on his patrol in Iraq. He liked to tell the story about how he injured his knee in the explosion but insisted on rejoining his unit and patrolling while wearing a leg brace. Telling these stories kept his combat experience fresh in his mind, according to his wife. "It started to reopen those wounds again," she said. "He was constantly masking his emotions just to get out there and do a job."

On Aug. 9, Patrick Henderson's colleague, and Amanda Henderson's boss, Staff Sgt. Larry G. Flores Jr., hanged himself with an extension cord in his garage in Palestine, Texas. The Houston Chronicle reported that Flores had been called to "low-production training" a week earlier and had been chewed out with other station commanders who were having trouble hitting their recruitment goals. He was pressured to say he was a failure and that he wanted to quit, reportedly as a way to drive him out of the Army. Making matters worse, Flores's wife was planning to leave him, according to the Chronicle. Patrick Henderson took Flores's death hard. "I think that triggered something," Amanda Henderson said. Within six weeks, he ended his life, too.

The investigation into the deaths of Flores, Patrick Henderson, Sgt. Nils Aron Andersson, and another Army captain who shot himself in January 2005 examined the four soldiers' personal lives, their financial and medical records, and their job performance. Brig. Gen. Frank D. Turner, who headed the investigation, said that in all of the cases the soldiers' personal relationships were a "significant" factor. "All of them were involved in failed or failing relationships," he said. "That was significant, I thought." Turner did not determine why the relationships had failed or were in trouble.

Amanda Henderson is adamant that her marriage wasn't failing. "We didn't have a bad marriage, but we were never able to sit down together and de-stress from our positions because we were constantly working." Turner's investigation found that the Army had "rounded up" the Houston recruiters' quotas to 2 contracts per month, as opposed to, say, 1.5 to 1.6 per month.

Regarding the challenging work environment, Turner said he found that a "couple leaders" at the Houston battalion had ordered recruiters to work long, unpredictable hours, and humiliated them when they didn't meet their mission goals. "The main climate [in the battalion] was poor," he said. "Disciplinary action is being taken." Although Turner declined to discuss specific actions because of privacy concerns, Cornyn said, "I have been assured that those persons responsible are under review and that this is not limited to [enlisted ranks]; this actually goes up the command chain to officers."

Although all four soldiers who committed suicide had served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, Turner said, "I did not find anything inherently problematic with soldiers returning from combat duty [and] going into the recruiting process." Turner later told the Army Times that none of the four men had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but Amanda Henderson disputes that. "Patrick was diagnosed with a mild case of PTSD," she said. "I think he tried to repress a lot of things from the war."

In response to the investigation, the Army has ordered a recruiting command "stand down" -- somewhat like a teacher's professional development day -- on Feb. 13 so that recruiters can get suicide-prevention training. The Army is also conducting a "command climate" assessment across the Army Recruiting Command. In Houston, the battalion commander and executive officer have been replaced, and the new leaders have made some changes to recruiting practices, including guidance on how many hours recruiters are expected to work.

While the Houston battalion makes adjustments in the wake of Turner's report, the Army is facing another recruiting challenge. It plans to add 74,000 soldiers to its ranks by 2010. To do so, it has bolstered the number of active-duty recruiters from 6,506 to 7,574. "Never have we had such a high percentage of military individuals having combat experience," said David Rudd, a former Army psychologist who teaches at Texas Tech University. "The probability that these people are going to end up in these jobs is greater than ever."