Why Are Army Recruiters Killing Themselves?
When Army Staff Sergeant Amanda Henderson ran into Staff Sergeant Larry Flores in their Texas recruiting station last August, she was shocked by the dark circles under his eyes and his ragged appearance. "Are you O.K.?" she asked the normally squared-away soldier. "Sergeant Henderson, I am just really tired," he replied. "I had such a bad, long week, it was ridiculous." The previous Saturday, Flores' commanders had berated him for poor performance. He had worked every day since from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., trying to persuade the youth of Nacogdoches to wear Army green. "But I'm O.K.," he told her.
No, he wasn't. Later that night, Flores hanged himself in his garage with an extension cord. Henderson and her husband Patrick, both Army recruiters, were stunned. "I'll never forget sitting there at Sergeant Flores' memorial service with my husband and seeing his wife crying," Amanda recalls. "I remember looking over at Patrick and going, 'Why did he do this to her? Why did he do this to his children?' " Patrick didn't say anything, and Amanda now says Flores' suicide "triggered" something in her husband. Six weeks later, Patrick hanged himself with a dog chain in their backyard shed. (See pictures of suicide in recruiters' ranks.)
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now the longest waged by an all-volunteer force in U.S. history. Even as soldiers rotate back into the field for multiple and extended tours, the Army requires a constant supply of new recruits. But the patriotic fervor that led so many to sign up after 9/11 is now eight years past. That leaves recruiters with perhaps the toughest, if not the most dangerous, job in the Army. Last year alone, the number of recruiters who killed themselves was triple the overall Army rate. Like posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, recruiter suicides are a hidden cost of the nation's wars.
The Wartime Challenge
Behind the neat desks and patriotic posters in 1,650 Army recruiting stations on Main Streets and in strip malls is a work environment as stressful in its own way as combat. The hours are long, time off is rare, and the demand to sign up at least two recruits a month is unrelenting. Soldiers who have returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan now constitute 73% of recruiters, up from 38% in 2005. And for many of them, the pressure is just too much. "These kids are coming back from Iraq with problems," says a former Army officer who recently worked in the Houston Recruiting Battalion.
The responsibility for providing troop replacements falls to the senior noncommissioned officers who have chosen to make recruiting their career in the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC). They in turn put pressure on their local recruiters to "make mission" and generate the recruits — sometimes by any means necessary. Lawrence Kagawa retired last July after more than 20 years in uniform; he spent the latter half as a highly decorated recruiter, and his tenure included a stint in the Houston battalion from 2002 to 2005. "There's one set of values for the Army, and when you go to Recruiting Command, you're basically forced to do things outside of what would normally be considered to be moral or ethical," he says.
Because station commanders and their bosses are rated on how well their subordinates recruit, there is a strong incentive to cut corners to bring in enlistees. If recruiters can't make mission legitimately, their superiors will tell them to push the envelope. "You'll be told to call Johnny or Susan and tell them to lie and say they've never had asthma like they told you, that they don't have a juvenile criminal history," Kagawa says. "That recruiter is going to bend the rules and get the lies told and process the fraudulent paperwork." And if the recruiter refuses? The commander, says Kagawa, is "going to tell you point-blank that 'we have a loyalty issue here, and if I give you a "no" for loyalty on your annual report, your career is over.' "
It's not surprising, then, that some recruiters ignore red flags to enlist marginal candidates. "I've seen [recruiters] make kids drink gallons of water trying to flush marijuana out of their system before they take their physicals," one Houston recruiter says privately. "I've seen them forge signatures." Sign up a pair of enlistees in a month and a recruiter is hailed; sign up none and he can be ordered to monthly Saturday sessions, where he is verbally pounded for his failure.
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The military isn't known for treating underperformers with kid gloves. But the discipline can be harder for recruiters to take because they are, in most cases, physically and socially isolated. Unlike most soldiers, who are assigned to posts where they and their families receive the Army's full roster of benefits, 70% of Army recruiters live more than 50 miles (80 km) from the nearest military installation. Lacking local support, recruiters and their spouses turn to Internet message boards. "I hate to say it, but all the horror stories are true!" a veteran Army recruiter advised a rookie online. "It will be three years of hell on you and your family." One wife wrote that instead of coming home at the end of a long workday, her husband was headed "to Super Wal-Mart to find prospects because they're open for 24 hours."
Today's active-duty Army recruiting force is 7,600-strong. Soldiers attend school at Fort Jackson, S.C., for seven weeks before being sent to one of the 38 recruiting battalions across the nation. There they spend their days calling lists of high school seniors and other prospects and visiting schools and malls. At night, they visit the homes of potential recruits to sell them on one of the Army's 150 different jobs and seal the deal with hefty enlistment bonuses: up to $40,000 in cash and as much as $65,000 for college. The manual issued to recruiting commanders warns that, unlike war, in recruiting there will be no victory "until such time when the United States no longer requires an Army." Recruiting must "continue virtually nonstop" and is "aggressive, persistent and unrelenting." (See more about the military.)
Lone Star Losses
Nowhere has the pace been more punishing than inside the Houston Recruiting Battalion. One of every 10 of the Army's recruits last year came from Texas — the highest share of any state — and recruiters in Harris County enlisted 1,104, just 37 shy of first-place Phoenix's Maricopa County. The Houston unit's nearly 300 recruiters are spread among 49 stations across southeast Texas. Since 2005, four members recently back from Iraq or Afghanistan have committed suicide while struggling, as recruiters say, to "put 'em in boots." TIME has obtained a copy of the Army's recently completed 2-inch-thick (50 mm) report of the investigation into the Houston suicides. Its bottom line: recruiters there have toiled under a "poor command climate" and an "unhealthy and singular focus on production at the expense of soldier and family considerations." Most names have been deleted; the Army said those who were blamed by recruiters for the poor work environment didn't want to comment. While some recruiters were willing to talk to TIME, most declined to be named for fear of risking their careers. (See pictures of U.S. troops' 6 years in Iraq.)
Captain Rico Robinson, 32, the Houston battalion's personnel officer, was the first suicide, shooting himself in January 2005. But one of his predecessors, Christina Montalvo, had tried to kill herself a few years earlier, gulping a handful of prescription sleeping pills in a suicide attempt that was thwarted when a co-worker found her. Montalvo says a boss bullied her about her weight. And she was shocked by the abuse that senior sergeants routinely levied on subordinates. "I'd never been in a unit before where soldiers publicly humiliated other soldiers," says Montalvo, who left the Army in 2002 after 16 years. "If they don't make mission, they're humiliated and embarrassed."
Several months after Robinson committed suicide, Staff Sergeant Nils Aron Andersson arrived in Houston as a recruiter. Andersson had served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne and had won a Bronze Star for helping buddies pinned down in a firefight. "I asked him what he did to get it, and he just looked right at me and said, 'Doing my job, Dad, just doing my job,' and that's all he ever said," says his father Robert of Springfield, Ore. "He wouldn't talk to me about Iraq."
Aron, as he was known, had changed in Iraq. Perhaps it was the September 2003 night he gave up his exposed seat in a Black Hawk helicopter to a younger soldier who wanted the thrill of sitting there and who ended up being the only one killed when the chopper flipped on takeoff. Or maybe it was the day Andersson's squad had to destroy a speeding suicide van headed straight at their checkpoint, despite the women and children inside.
Instead of returning for a third tour, Andersson chose recruiting. He trained at Fort Jackson, filed for divorce and joined the Houston battalion in 2005. "They were working the crap out of him," Robert says. "I'd get calls from him at 9:30 at night — 11:30 in Houston — and he'd say he was just leaving the recruiting office and starting on his 40-minute drive home." His easygoing son also developed a hair-trigger temper during his time at the River Oaks and Rosenberg recruiting stations. "He wasn't really a salesman," Robert says, "and recruiters are trying to sell something."
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Several months into the job, Aron threatened suicide in front of a girlfriend. After Army doctors cleared him, he returned to work. "For the two years he was in Iraq, I'd turn down the street and be terrified there'd be a car with a set of government plates on it when I got home telling me that he'd been killed," his father says. "Suicide was the last scenario I'd ever come up with."
But that was what occurred on March 5, 2007. In the week before his suicide, Andersson was ordered to write three separate essays explaining his failure to line up prospective recruits. A fellow recruiter later told Army investigators that commanders "humiliated" this decorated battlefield soldier during a training session: "He was under a constant grind — incredible pressure. He just became numb." (See pictures of British soldiers in Afghanistan.)
Andersson, 25, stopped by his recruiting station hours before he died and said he had gotten married that morning to Cassy Walton, whom he had recently met. He seemed in a good mood. "Before leaving, he played a prank on the station commander that made everyone laugh," a fellow recruiter told investigators. But the newlyweds argued that night, and Andersson, inside his new Ford pickup, put the barrel of a Ruger .22-cal. pistol to his right temple and squeezed the trigger. His widow, suffering from psychiatric problems of her own, killed herself the next day with a gun she had just bought.
"That double suicide should have stopped everything," an officer who was in the battalion says privately. Instead, he reports, the leadership in Houston said, "We're just going to keep rolling the way we've been rolling."
The way things rolled in Houston, it turns out, was especially harsh. Until recently, the Army told prospective recruiters they'd be expected to sign up two recruits a month. "All of your training is geared toward prospecting for and processing at least two enlistments monthly," the Army said on its Recruit the Recruiter website until TIME called to ask about the requirement. Major General Thomas Bostick, USAREC's top general, sent out a 2006 letter declaring that each recruiter "Must Do Two." But if each recruiter did that, the Army would be flooded with more than 180,000 recruits a year instead of the 80,000 it needs. In fact, the real target per recruiter is closer to one a month. Yet the constant drumbeat for two continued.
The Houston battalion's punishing work hours were also beyond what was expected. In June 2007, Bostick issued a written order to the 5th Recruiting Brigade and its Houston battalion requiring commanders to clarify the battalion's fuzzy work-hour policy, which could be read as requiring 13-hour workdays. He demanded a new policy "consistent with law and regulation." The brigade and battalion commanders ignored the order.
By mid-2008, a Houston battalion commander complained to subordinates of "getting numerous calls on recruiters being called 'dirtbags' or 'useless' when they do not accomplish mission each month." He'd heard that recruiters who had been promised birthdays or anniversaries off were being "called back to work on the day of the anniversary and during the birthday and/or anniversary party when they already had family and friends at their homes." To improve morale, the battalion's leadership decided to hold a picnic last July 26. "Family fun is mandatory," read an internal e-mail.
Crying Like a Child
Staff Sergeant Flores, a married father of two, who'd looked so haggard last August, was the station commander overseeing the pair of recruiting offices in Nacogdoches. The job required the veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq to dial into two daily conference calls from his office at 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. "On a regular basis, he would complain to me that the 15 to 19 hours we worked daily were too much," a colleague told Army investigators.
When Flores' station failed to make mission, his superiors ordered him to attend what the Army calls "low-production training" in Houston on Saturday, Aug. 2. "When you're getting home at 11 and getting up at 4, it's tough, but it's the dressing down that really got to him," says a recruiter who worked alongside Flores. "They had him crying like a kid in the office, telling him he was no good and that they were going to pull his stripes."
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Flores, 26, was told his failure as a station commander meant he'd soon be returning to a basic recruiter's slot. "He was an emotional wreck," said a soldier who spoke with him the evening of Aug. 8. "He said he felt he failed as a station commander," the colleague told investigators. "He had asked me for a firearm. I told him I didn't have one. It actually never crossed my mind that it might have been for himself." Flores hanged himself that night. "The leadership is the major cause for SFC Flores taking his own life, he was a prideful soldier," a fellow station commander wrote in a statement, carefully noting Flores' posthumous promotion. "I believe this was a snap decision because SFC Flores stated to me that he grew up without a father and he would never do that to his kids."
Amanda Henderson had worked alongside Flores in Nacogdoches. Her husband, Sergeant First Class Patrick Henderson, 35, served at a recruiting office 90 minutes away in Longview. Patrick met Amanda at recruiting school after a combat tour in Iraq, and they married in January 2008. With their new jobs, though, "there was no time for family life at all," Amanda says. While Patrick didn't want the assignment, his widow says, the Army told him he had no choice. He masked his disappointment behind a friendly demeanor and an easy smile.
But things got worse after Flores' death. "He just kept saying it was the battalion's fault because of this big bashing session that had taken place" six days before Flores killed himself, Amanda says. "I can't tell you how mad he got at the Army when Flores committed suicide." Two weeks later, Patrick spoke of killing himself and was embarrassed by the fuss it kicked up. "He started to get reclusive," Amanda says now.
"He sounded pretty beat up," a fellow recruiter told investigators later. "He seemed to be upset about recruiting and didn't want to be out here." Patrick was taken off frontline recruiting and assigned to company headquarters. But it didn't stop his downward spiral. The day after a squabble with his wife on Sept. 19, Patrick hanged himself.
A Senator Demands Answers
It wasn't until reports in the Houston Chronicle provoked Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas to demand answers that the Army launched an investigation into the string of suicides. "It's tragic that it took four deaths to bring this to the attention of a U.S. Senator and to ask for a formal investigation," Cornyn says. After Cornyn began asking questions, the Army ordered Brigadier General F.D. Turner to investigate. Recruiters told him that their task is a "stressful, challenging job that is driven wholly by production, that is, the numbers of people put into the Army each month," Turner disclosed Dec. 23 after a two-month probe.
The report found that morale was particularly low in the Houston battalion. Its top officer and enlisted member — Lieut. Colonel Toimu Reeves and Command Sergeant Major Cheryl Broussard — are no longer with the unit. (He left for another post in USAREC; she was removed from her post until an investigation into her role is finished, and she is working in the San Antonio Recruiting Battalion.)
In an interview, General Turner would not discuss the personal lives of the victims, but his report noted that all four were in "failed or failing" relationships. Yet he conceded that "the work environment might have been relevant in their relationship problems." The claim of a failing relationship is denied by Amanda Henderson and by testimony from fellow recruiters. And an Army crisis-response team dispatched to Houston in October to look into last summer's two suicides cited a poor work environment — not domestic issues — as key.
After Turner's report, Lieut. General Benjamin Freakley, head of the Army Accessions Command that oversees USAREC, asked the Army inspector general to conduct a nationwide survey of the mood among Army recruiters. The Army also ordered a one-day stand-down for all recruiters in February so it could focus on proper leadership and suicide prevention. The worsening economy is already easing some of the recruiters' burden, as is the raising of the maximum enlistment age, from 35 to 42. But with only 3 in 10 young Americans meeting the mental, moral and physical requirements to serve, recruiting challenges will continue.
Amanda Henderson, who lost both her husband and her boss to suicide last year, has left that battlefield. "The Army didn't take care of my husband or Sergeant Flores the way they needed to," she says. Though still in the Army, she has quit recruiting and returned to her former job as a supply sergeant at Fort Jackson. Because of the poor economy, she says, she plans to stay in uniform at least until her current enlistment is up in 2011. "Some days I say I've just got to go on," she says. "Other days I'll just sit and cry all day long."