From a War Zone to Stateside Nightmare

Army investigates recruiting tactics after four Houston-area suicides.

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.

Andersson's mother, Charlotte Porter, said the marriage was the last in a string of signs that her son was slipping. He wasn't a complainer, but Porter said she remembered her son telling her that his job "sucked."

"He said, 'Mom, I'm very honest,'" Porter said. "I said, 'I know you are, Aron.'"

Whether or not the recruiting tactics directly led to the soldiers' suicides may never be known, but the rigors of the recruiting practices were enough of a concern for a senator to call for action.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, sent letters in September and October to Army Secretary Pete Geren after reading about three Houston-area suicides in less than two years -- Andersson, Henderson and Staff Sgt. Larry Flores Jr. -- in a series of articles in the Houston Chronicle.

After news broke of his first letter, Cornyn said his office started getting calls from anonymous recruiters and their family members telling him about the intense, sometimes unbearable pressures placed on recruiters.

"Some have alleged that the senior leaders in 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," Cornyn wrote to Geren in his second letter, dated Oct. 9.

Cornyn went on to reference alleged improper recruiting practices, including "mass punishment" and organizing hazing sessions for recruiters who fail to meet their monthly quotas for new recruits; confrontational "counseling sessions" for these same recruiters, at which they have been personally insulted and threatened with separation from the Army if their performance does not improve.

In a letter dated Nov. 3, Geren wrote back to Cornyn that Brig. Gen. Frank Turner had been appointed to conduct an internal investigation into the allegations and that an Army chaplain would provide pastoral care to the families and soldiers of the Houston Recruiting Battalion.

Geren said he has also directed the commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command to assess the soldiers' mental health support access with the surgeon general. And U.S. Army Recruiting Command deployed a critical response team in October that included a chaplain and a psychologist. The visit, postponed from September after Hurricane Ike hit Texas, was originally scheduled to start six days before Henderson died.

Cornyn, elected last week to his second six-year term, told that he was surprised to hear the stories about the high-pressure recruiting tactics and how families and other recruiters said the job may be driving some soldiers to suicide.

Douglas Smith, spokesman for USAREC, referred to Geren's commitment to an investigation when asked for comment on the allegations out of the Houston Recruiting Battalion.

Smith said there are more than 8,800 recruiters across the country and 17 have committed suicide since fiscal year 2001. But Houston seems to be a unique case as neither Wright nor Smith had heard of similar allegations anywhere else in the country.

"I am not familiar," Wright said, "with other recruiting battalions' situations as it compares to Houston."

USAREC records show that of the 17 suicides, the only other area with more than one such death was Milwaukee, with one in fiscal year 2001 and another in 2003. Army-wide, there have been 93 suicides this year through Aug. 31 -- so Henderson is not included in that figure -- and there were 115 suicides in 2007.

Warning Signs

Staff Sgt. Amanda Henderson, Patrick Henderson's wife, said the pressures of recruiting, plus a career-threatening knee injury and mental scars from his days as an infantryman in Iraq, were just too much for her husband.

He first tried to commit suicide in August, less than a month after Flores, his wife's boss, hanged himself, leaving a wife and two children behind. Amanda Henderson said that when her husband drove home for what would have been one last kiss goodbye, she was able to get the keys away from him and lock the door to his car where the loaded gun was stored.

Henderson, 35, was driven six hours to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio after three or four days in a clinic. Two evaluations there by civilian doctors declared him not a danger to himself or others, Amanda Henderson said, though they recommended he leave his high-stress recruiting job.

Less than a month later, he was dead -- his body found by his wife and stepson. He had been waiting on papers to transfer back into the infantry.

"I depended on Patrick for so much. He was my rock," Amanda Henderson said. "I would do anything in this world to have him back."

The couple had been married for less than a year. They met in 2007 in recruiting training school in South Carolina where Henderson was training for a second round of recruiting.

They had both served tours of duty in Iraq, Amanda Henderson for a year between 2004 and 2005 and Patrick Henderson for a year between 2005 and 2006. While she had volunteered for a recruiting position, he had received orders for the job before his time in Iraq and after.

"He had a presence about him and he was handsome," she said. "And when he spoke -- when he spoke everyone listened to him."

But knee surgery for an injury sustained in Iraq led to a devastating staph infection that dragged out his recovery time for months and led to rumors that not only would he never be allowed back in the infantry, he could be let go from his recruiting job because he wasn't able to work.

Amanda Henderson said he tried to go to physical therapy, but his phone would ring and ring with command wanting to know where he was and when he could come back to work.

"He had a lot of pressures going on about work," she said.

He hated the recruiting job, she said, even though he was good at it. In Iraq he had been a respected leader, she said, but in the recruiting office he was forced to take orders from a lower-ranking official who would criticize his methods.

Amanda Henderson said she went to bed the night of Sept. 20 after discussing plans for the next day with her husband. She said she was mentally and physically exhausted, having spent the past month watching her husband's every move, afraid he might try again to commit suicide.

And when she fell asleep, her husband of less than 10 months ended his life.

Achieving Their Goals

Cornyn, Rodriguez and Amanda Henderson all said the mounting pressures of finding recruits for an ongoing war are compounded by the fact that some of the Houston-area assignments are located in rural towns, leaving the soldiers little or no time to seek mental health help either on the road or on assignment.

And the recruiting commands, Rodriguez said, are typically led by men who have no combat service and do not understand how the pressure of moving from one intense situation to another can put a strain on a soldier. The combat veteran recruiters, he said, have a name for them -- the "USAREC mafia."

"We often talked about how we'd rather be in Iraq than recruiting," he said, adding that he jumped at the chance to go back to Iraq for a second tour after about 15 minutes with the Houston Recruiting Battalion.

Smith said that during the 2008 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the command's goal for active Army recruits was 80,000 and they achieved 80,517. It was the third year in a row that the goals set for active Army and Army reserves were achieved.

"I fully concur with you that soldiers we assign to recruiting duties must have the full range of support services they need," Geren wrote in his response to Cornyn. "I share your concerns that the remote assignments of recruiters may prevent a recruiter's full access to the Army's mental health services."

But Geren noted that USAREC had reported no evidence that leaders without command experience were ill-equipped to lead those who recently returned from overseas deployments.

Andersson's mother said her eldest son should not have felt that he had no other choice than to end his life. And the only way to stop it is to keeping talking about what happened to her son and the men who died before and after him.

"I really don't want anyone to have to go through this. I believe education will be the factor," she said. "The American people always step up to the plate."

Porter said she watched her son become more and more distant and listened to his fears that if he was more vocal about getting help he'd jeopardize the career he'd worked so hard for.

"I think there's so many things to be changed," she said from her home in Oregon. "It's hard to know how to work within [the military] when you're not in it."

Cornyn said he's disappointed the investigation ordered by Geren is internal and not independent, but he's willing to give the military the benefit of the doubt. He's expecting the report after the new Congress convenes in January.

"I don't know what to think yet," he said. "We'll want to see what the product is and whether it's credible before we ask for an outside investigation."

But while Rodriguez is unimpressed by the impending investigation -- "We call it the mafia because nothing ever changes," he said -- Amanda Henderson is optimistic.

Still working out of a recruiting station in Tyler, she's applied for a transfer to finish out her three remaining years in the Army in a different post. She said her 12-year-old son has slept in her bed since her husband died, and both of them are still reeling from the shock.

Her husband, she said, is "going to be my hero for the rest of my life."

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