From a War Zone to Stateside Nightmare

Army investigates recruiting tactics after four Houston-area suicides.

ByABC News
November 12, 2008, 3:17 PM

Nov. 14, 2008— -- Staff Sgt. Nils Aron Andersson was a newlywed of just a few hours and had completed his first counseling session when he shot himself atop a parking garage.

Staff Sgt. Patrick Henderson had made plans with his wife and stepson to go fishing the night he hanged himself in his shed.

Now their friends and family members are speaking out against the job they say led the men to kill themselves -- recruiting for the Army.

The families have said high-pressure, sometimes abusive tactics used on recruiters combined with lingering combat-related mental health problems drove the soldiers to suicide. There have been four suicides in the Houston Recruiting Battalion alone, including three in the past 18 months.

The allegations have led one senator to call for an investigation into whether the military is covering up a "toxic" work environment.

The Army has launched an internal investigation into the Houston allegations, but spokesmen for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command and the Army itself did not respond to the specific charges raised by the friends and relatives of the recruiters who committed suicide, saying the investigation is a response in itself.

"Every soldier has a mission. Army recruiters have a mission to do the prospecting" for new members, Army spokesman Lt. Col. George Wright told "For some recruiters ... it's not the right fit and many of these sergeants are returned to the field Army."

But some say it's not that simple.

"They kind of want you to slam people into the Army," Army Staff Sgt. Chris Rodriguez, a combat veteran with two tours of duty in Iraq who worked as an Army recruiter alongside Andersson, told

Rodriguez said recruiters were told to lure potential recruits with whatever promises they could -- offers of college educations, health benefits for their families, sign-on bonuses as high as $40,000. And to a teen, he said, those promises are irresistible.

"I think that's one of the problems Aron had," he said. "We don't want people who don't want to be there."

Recruiters, many of them combat veterans like Rodriguez and Andersson, 25, knew the picture they painted for incoming recruits was not the reality they would experience once the signature was in place, Rodriguez said.

"I'm sure it bothered him to no end," Rodriguez said of his friend. "He was pretty much just straight up with people."

'A Dog on a Leash'

But that's not what the Army wanted from its soldiers, Rodriguez said. There were consequences for not meeting the command's recruitment goal or even "rolling a goose egg" -- the term they used for not bringing in anyone.

"They will ridicule you in front of your peers," he said. "They try to make an example out of you."

And, he continued, they found ways to eat into the soldier's personal time as punishment, such as assigning them to recruit at remote places that are hours-long drives from their homes or scheduling presentations to higher-ups late at night. Houston-area recruiters, he said, worked about 13 hours a day, sometimes more, and weekends.

And all the while the recruiters watched their friends, their fellow soldiers, start new lives, go to college, get married.

"It's like being a dog on a leash," Rodriguez said. "You can see all of it happening, but you can't really interact with them."

Andersson, less than 24 hours after marrying a girl he'd been dating for a few months -- a marriage neither of his parents knew about until after his death -- sat in his new car in a parking garage near where he used to live with an old girlfriend and shot himself.

Two days later, his new wife followed suit.