By LINDSAY WISE
Jan. 22, 2009
An Army investigation into a string of suicides among Houston-based
recruiters has found that poor leadership, job-related stress,
personal matters and medical problems all contributed to the deaths.
As a result of the findings released Wednesday, Secretary of the Army
Pete Geren ordered a rare one-day stand-down next month of all Army
recruiting efforts in order to focus on leadership training, suicide
prevention and recruiter wellness.
"This is a significant action," said Brig. Gen. Dell Turner, who
conducted the investigation. "It's rarely implemented, and typically
only after some significant event. It's a day for the unit to stop
what it's doing on the mission side and review policies and practices."
In addition to the stand-down, the Army's Inspector General will lead
an assessment of working conditions throughout the nation's 38
The Army is also reviewing recruiter screening and selection
processes, Army-wide suicide prevention training, and access to
mental health care, especially for soldierswho, like many recruiters,
work in areas far from the resources of a military base.
Turner said his investigation found evidence of a poor command
climate inside the Houston battalion, which has lost four recruiters
to suicide since 2005, including two who hanged themselves within
weeks of each other last year. All four had served in Iraq or
Afghanistan before being reassigned to recruiting duty, a job
considered one of the most stressful in the Army, especially in wartime.
Turner concluded that there was no single cause for the deaths, but
he said the leadership problem at the Houston battalion manifested
itself in different ways, including poor morale, long work hours and
unpredictable schedules that restricted recruiters' time with their
families and strained their personal relationships. In at least one
instance, he said, commanders inappropriately humiliated Staff Sgt.
Larry G. Flores Jr. during an Aug. 2 "low-production counseling
session" in which Flores and other recruiters who failed to meet
monthly quotas had to defend their work ethics before a panel of superiors.
Flores' friends and colleagues have said the 26-year-old station
commander later told them the battalion's command sergeant major had
pressured him to admit he was a failure and that he wanted to quit,
so it would make it easier to kick him out of recruiting or even out
of the Army. Turner said he believes the humiliating episode played a
role in Flores' suicide a week later. "It was very personal rather
than being focused on performance improvement," Turner said.
He said disciplinary actions are being taken against specific
leaders, but declined to comment further except to confirm that the
consequences extend beyond the Houston battalion.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn had requested a "thorough and unbiased" probe
in October after the Houston Chronicle reported on the suicides.
Studied each death
Later that month, Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, commander of U.S.
Army Accessions Command, appointed Turner to scrutinize the
circumstances of each death, as well as allegations that the chain of
command tried to cover up a toxic leadership climate at the battalion.
"I'm very impressed with how seriously the Army took my request for
an investigation," Cornyn said Wednesday. "I'm encouraged by the
depth and breadth of the review and the candor with which they have
acknowledged the problems."
The Texas Republican said he wants to hold hearings to determine if
similar problems extend to the Army's 37 other recruiting battalions.
At least 17 recruiters have killed themselves nationwide since 2001.
The deaths come at a time when suicides among all active duty
soldiers have hit record highs. In 2007, 115 committed suicide, the
highest number since the Army began tracking such statistics in 1980.
By October of last year, 117 soldiers had reportedly killed themselves.
Recruiters interviewed by the Chronicle have said they commute long
distances to isolated stations and regularly work 12 to 14 hours a
day, six or seven days a week.
If they don't meet their monthly quotas, they said, they're
criticized as failures, punished with even longer duty hours and
threatened with losing rank, receiving bad evaluations or being
kicked out of the Army. Seeking mental health treatment is difficult
because recruiters have little free time or access to doctors and therapists.
Amanda Henderson's husband, Sgt. 1st Class Patrick G. Henderson,
became the latest Houston-battalion recruiter to commit suicide when
he hanged himself in a shed Sept. 20. His widow welcomed news of the
Army's report Wednesday.
"Even though I can't bring him back, I'm glad something's going to be
done," said Henderson, 32. "But is there really going to be a change?"
Bob Andersson's son, Sgt. Nils "Aron" Andersson, shot himself in
2007. The 25-year-old Bronze Star recipient had served two combat
tours in Iraq before being reassigned to recruiting duty in Houston.
His father said he told Turner during a phone conversation Tuesday
night that the Army needs to do a better job caring for its veterans.
"I said, 'I was hoping (that sharing Aron's story) would make a
difference for even just one family. Now here you have the
opportunity to save a lot of people a lot of grief.' And I said, 'I
hope to God you can do it.' "