Reporter Lindsay Wise has been following the recruiter suicides for The Houston Chronicle. Here's a selection of her stories for the newspaper.
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," Andersson says.
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.
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 remained terrified.
"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 volunteer.
"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."