Army Recruiter Suicides Prompt Investigations
by John McChesney
January 2, 2009
The Army is investigating a cluster of suicides in the Houston
Recruiting Battalion, where five soldiers have taken their own lives
since 2001. Nationally, 17 recruiters have committed suicide during
the same period.
Back in March of 2007, Aron Andersson locked himself in the cab of
his Ford 150 pickup, called home to say he was going to kill himself,
shot up the dashboard radio, and then put a bullet in his head. He
had threatened suicide five months earlier, and back then his father,
Bob Andersson, reported him to the military.
"I don't know if that was the right thing to do, but I called a major
and told him his girlfriend had said he threatened to commit suicide,
and she told me he was going through night terrors and a bunch of
other things. And he'd get up to go to work in the morning and tell
his girlfriend he was exhausted, and she'd say, 'Yeah you've been
jumpin' over the couch, hidin' behind the chairs and stuff, like
you're in battle,' and he wouldn't even realize it in the morning,"
Aron Andersson served two tours in Iraq, and he was furious with his
father for reporting him, saying his Army career would be ended.
"And I just simply told him, 'Well, Aron, if you don't talk to me
ever again, I can live with that. But if I didn't turn you in and
something happened, I don't think I could live with that,' " Bob
Andersson says his son had trouble delivering the required two
recruits a month, especially after his experience in Iraq.
"How could you be over there and see some of the things he saw and
dealt with, and try to hire people to go over there and do that?" he says.
Intense Pressure On Recruiters
Chris Rodriguez, a friend who worked with Aron Andersson as a
recruiter, says no one wanted to lie, but pressure on recruiters is
intense during wartime. Recruiting is considered one of the most
stressful jobs in the military.
"A soldier doesn't want to get down and beg a person to join the
Army, but I think often at times these recruiters, myself, we felt
like we were begging them and trying to do anything to convince them
to give it a try like we had," Rodriguez says. "We often sat in the
recruiting station, sometimes really late, and talked about how we'd
rather be in Iraq than recruiting."
Aron Andersson was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, prescribed
medication, and returned to recruiting duty. His unit was advised to
keep an eye on him, and six months later, he took his life.
On Aug. 9, Staff Sgt. Larry Flores, an Iraq veteran, hanged himself
in his garage with an extension cord. Fellow recruiters told the
Houston Chronicle that a week earlier, Flores had been yelled at and
threatened with firing for failing to meet the goal of two recruits
each month. He was also having trouble with his wife.
Two weeks later, Sgt. First Class Patrick Henderson, also an Iraq
veteran in the same recruiting company with Flores, hanged himself in
the garage behind his home. Like Aron Andersson, Henderson had
earlier called his wife, Amanda, from his pickup, saying he was going
to kill himself.
"Crazed, hysterical he was crying and screaming, and I kept asking
him what's wrong, and he said 'I just can't deal with it anymore,' "
Amanda Henderson says. "He said, 'I've got the shotgun.' "
Amanda Henderson and a friend talked Patrick down that time. She says
the next morning, he was delusional and imagined he was back in Iraq.
He was sent off to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for evaluation,
then returned to his outfit but relieved from recruiting duty. Amanda
Henderson, herself a recruiter in the same battalion, says she
"He kept telling me, no, he's not going to do it, no he's not going
to do it," she says. "And he tried to convince me, but I knew in the
back of my head deep down that if you were going to try it once, you
were definitely going to do it again. So I knew something was wrong."
There's been a fourth suicide in the Houston battalion during this
same time period involving another combat veteran. No other details
are available. The Army says a fifth reported suicide in Houston was
not a recruiter.
Investigation Under Way
At the Houston battalion's headquarters, there is an investigation
under way and no one was available for comment, but the U.S. Army
Recruiting Command at Fort Knox in Kentucky said a general has been
appointed to look into the matter. Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn
called for the investigation.
"I asked for an independent investigation," Cornyn says. "This is not
what I call an independent investigation, but it's a step in the
right direction. And my hope is after this command investigation, I
hope we'll hold hearings."
One of the questions the senator wants answered is whether it is wise
to order combat veterans to take recruiting jobs. Most of them don't
"I believe that short of being shot at you know, risking your life
that recruiting is the toughest job in the Army," says James
Larsen, a retired senior policy analyst for the Army Recruiting Command.
Larsen says a recent study commissioned by the Army looked at the
level of stress hormones in recruiters.
"Recruiters have the highest stress levels of any occupation in the
United States policemen, firemen, special operations, spies you
name it. "Head and shoulders recruiters have the highest stress
levels of anybody," Larsen says.
Whether or not recruiters have the highest stress level, there's
little doubt they are under extraordinary pressure to sell the Army
to a small number of reluctant consumers. Add to that the marital
stress brought on by 12- to 14-hour workdays, the isolation of being
stationed in small towns far from a base and in the Houston
battalion's case, alleged abusive treatment of those who didn't
produce their quota and you have a potentially toxic cocktail.
But Cornyn is concerned about another matter.
"Part of this that was troubling was the suggestion that there was
pressure being put down the chain of command to keep this quiet," he says.
Cornyn wants to know if the Houston battalion's problems are an
isolated case, or whether recruiter stress patterns are similar in
other places. Amanda Henderson believes the problems are widespread
and that the Houston battalion in particular ignored all the danger signals.
"It needed to be looked at whenever the first one taken his life,"
she says. "Not wait until the fifth one had taken his life. The fifth
one was my husband."