Friday, September 26, 2008

Houston soldiers' suicides prompt scrutiny

Response team to deploy here after deaths of 2 more recruiters

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

An alarming number of suicides among Houston-based Army recruiters — including two in recent weeks — has prompted calls by a senator and veterans' advocates for closer scrutiny of high-stress recruiting duty during wartime.

Staff Sgt. Larry G. Flores Jr., 26, and Sgt. 1st Class Patrick G. Henderson, 35, are the fourth and fifth recruiters at the Houston Recruiting Battalion to kill themselves since 2001. Both men belonged to the battalion's Tyler Company, and both were combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Clearly, there's a problem," said David Rudd, a former Army psychologist and psychology chair at Texas Tech University. "Somebody needs to look and see if there's a broader national problem outside of this one battalion. Is it a problem placing these combat veterans in recruiting positions?"

Following inquiries by the Houston Chronicle on the suicides, Texas Sen. John Cornyn sent a letter Thursday to the secretary of the Army, asking for a briefing on the ongoing investigation and on the policy of returning soldiers from combat and reassigning them to a recruiting office.

"I am very concerned about this apparent trend within the Houston-based recruiting battalion, and I believe the situation requires your leadership and oversight to ensure the proper actions are taken and safeguards put in place to protect our troops," Cornyn wrote.

Also on Thursday, U.S. Recruiting Command at Fort Knox in Kentucky announced that it is "deeply concerned" and will deploy a critical response team to the battalion.

Houston has one of the top recruiting battalions in the nation when it comes to putting much-needed troops in boots. But with America's all-volunteer force straining to meet the manpower requirements of fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the difficulty of meeting monthly quotas — recruiters call it "making mission" — is taking its toll on recruiters and their families, say mental health specialists and veterans advocates.

The suicides in the Houston battalion are a "very loud, very bright alarm" that Army officials and politicians can't afford to ignore, said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.

"This may warrant congressional hearings," Sullivan said. "This may warrant changes in the selection, retention, promotion and distribution of recruiters, and it may also impact how the military addresses mental health needs for returning combat veterans placed in stressful noncombat jobs."

'You dread waking up'

Recruiting has long been considered one of the toughest jobs in the military. Recruiters from the Houston battalion who spoke to the Chronicle said they regularly work 12- to 14-hour days, six or seven days a week. Many of them have long commutes to small stations far from the camaraderie and resources of a military base. The pressure to sign at least two fresh "prospects" a month is immense.

Recruiters who were hand-picked from the ranks because of their chests full of medals find themselves suddenly playing the unfamiliar role of salesman. If they don't "make mission," they're punished with even longer duty hours and threatened with losing rank or receiving bad evaluations that could label them as failures. Most would prefer the combat zone over the pressure-cooker of recruiting, they say.

"You dread waking up and going to work," said Chris Rodriguez, a Houston battalion recruiter from 2005 to 2006. "You'll have no life, you'll never see your family. It's worse than a deployment because you're there with your family, but you can't spend any time with them."

Rodriguez, 25, used to have nightmares about recruiting after he left the battalion to serve in Iraq. Last March, his friend and fellow Army recruiter Nils Aron Andersson, 25, shot himself to death in a downtown Houston parking garage. Another friend who recruited in Houston told Rodriguez he'd put a .45 in his mouth and contemplated pulling the trigger.

"You've heard that recruiters are kind of insensitive to their recruits and tell them anything, but that pressure comes down all the way from the top," Rodriguez said. "It'll change your personality."

Expectations 'lose-lose'

Seeking mental health treatment is difficult because even if recruiters get over the stigma, they have little free time or access to doctors and therapists.

Recruiters said they're proud of their Army service but feel trapped by what they describe as the Houston battalion leadership's lack of compassion.

"The situation you're placed in, the expectations you are given, are lose-lose," said Staff Sgt. Jonathan L. Heinrich, a recruiter with the battalion's Tyler Company. "You can talk to as many people as you want to, but if people don't want to join the Army, there's nothing you can do."

Heinrich considered Flores his best friend. He hopes the tragedy will force change.

"I'm not going to blame a specific person because I don't know everything," he said. "However, I think the system to recruit should be revamped to actually do what they say they're going to do and look out for you and your family as well as the mission, because right now it seems they don't care about the recruiters at all."

The Houston Recruiting Battalion's Lt. Col. Toimu "Troy" Reeves and Command Sgt. Major Cheryl M. Broussard declined a request for interviews this week.

It wasn't until Thursday that U.S. Recruiting Command at Fort Knox responded with a written statement about what steps were being taken to address the battalion's string of suicides. It said the group will deploy a critical response team made up of a chaplain and psychologist to the battalion in October and will also establish a suicide prevention board to increase awareness, analyze trends and highlight resources to combat suicide among recruiters.

An argument

Flores, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, headed up the Tyler company's Nacogdoches recruiting station.

On Aug. 2, he was called to Houston to attend "low-production training" at 10:30 a.m. with other station commanders having trouble making mission.

The recruiters were told they'd go before a panel of their superiors to defend the work ethic at their stations.

It was 6 p.m. before Flores went inside to take his turn.

From the other side of the door, Sgt. 1st Class Willie Dawson, 40, could hear voices rising and muffled shouting. When Flores came out of the room, his face was beet red, Dawson said.
Dawson, commander of Tyler Company's Jacksonville station, asked Flores what happened.

"He just shook his head and said, 'I can't talk,' " Dawson said.

Later, Flores called his friend and fellow recruiter Heinrich.

"The way he told me it went down is the sergeant major kept pressuring him to say he's a failure and that he wanted to quit so it would make it easier for her to get rid of him from recruiting altogether or even out of the Army, basically chaptering him out of the Army," Heinrich said. "To be honest, that's something that's threatened on an almost daily basis out here."

Flores had more than work stress to confront. His wife, Jennifer, later told police she'd planned to leave her husband. The couple's marriage was deteriorating under the strain of his long hours and other job-related problems, she said. He'd told her he felt like a failure at work and couldn't take it anymore.

Flores was found dead in his garage in Palestine the morning of Aug. 9. He had hung himself with an extension cord.

A meltdown

Two weeks after Flores' death, police were called to the Hendersons' home in an East Texas town also called Henderson. The recruiter was acting delusional and threatening suicide.

"He was basically having a meltdown," said Lt. Craig Sweeney of the Henderson Police Department. "He was seeing some Iraqis in the woods near his house."

Henderson, an Iraq War veteran, was posted in Tyler Company's Longview station. His wife, Staff Sgt. Amanda Henderson, worked as a recruiter under Flores at the Nacogdoches station. The couple lived halfway between the two cities in Henderson.

After his breakdown, Patrick Henderson was treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, police said. He was removed from recruiting duty and ordered to report to the Tyler Company headquarters until reassignment.

On Sept. 19, Patrick Henderson and his wife apparently argued, police said. The next morning, his stepson found him dead in the shed behind his house. Like Flores, he had hung himself. The two recruiters died just six weeks apart.

Their deaths come at a time when suicides among all active duty soldiers are on track to set a record for the second year in a row. Last year, 115 soldiers committed suicide. By the end of August this year, 93 soldiers had killed themselves.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mother to talk in Camarillo about son's controversial death

Mary Tillman says she may never know the entire story surrounding the death of her son

By Eliav Appelbaum

Pat Tillman For Mary Tillman, finding peace in her son's death has been an arduous and mysterious journey, one teeming with lies, bureaucracy and Congressional hearings.

It has been a hard battle, one fought in metaphorical trenches, to understand how and why her son Pat Tillman died in combat in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.

Pat Tillman gave up a career and a $1-million contract in the National Football League to join the U.S. Army Rangers in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

To this day, Mary Tillman doesn't have all the answers concerning the death of the former Arizona Cardinals safety. Writing her book, "Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman," has brought some comfort to the Tillman family.

"I think we've done about all we can; we've pressed this as hard as we could," Tillman said on the phone from her home in San Jose. "I guess we've come to believe that this was an accident with very gross negligence. There is a part of me that wonders that, if this investigation was done properly, could there have been something more nefarious to it?—but we'll never know."

Mary Tillman Mary Tillman will talk about her son and the book at 2 p.m. next Fri., Sept. 26 at the Camarillo Library.

Released April 29, "Boots on the Ground by Dusk" chronicles the family's attempt to understand what happened on the day Pat Tillman died and examines his life away from football and the armed forces.

"I felt the media turned him into a caricature, and part of that was because he played football," said Mary Tillman, who spent 11 years teaching middle school students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. "The (Bush) administration used Pat: They wanted to cover up his death but at the same time use him to rally patriotic feelings and support for the war. I wanted to humanize Pat."

The Tillmans were initially told by the government that Pat Tillman was shot in the head by enemy gunfire. At his memorial service, the story changed to say he died running up a hill to pursue an enemy. About a month later, the family learned that their son was shot three times in the head by his own troops in a friendly fire incident.

Over the years, details have changed, and the truth remains murky. Since Pat Tillman's death, there have been six investigations, several inquiries and two Congressional hearings.

"At every turn, we discovered peculiar nuances in the stories that didn't make any sense," Mary Tillman said. "We've tried to find out the truth. I think (Pat) would be satisfied with our effort.

He would have wanted us to do this, but not beat our heads against the wall."

With the NFL season less than three weeks old, this time of year has, in the past, been emotionally tough on Mary Tillman.

"It's gotten easier," she said. "The first two or three years it was really hard. I couldn't watch football games. I had a hard time watching if a game was on in a restaurant or bar. I don't have the same enthusiasm for the game. My sons (Kevin and Richard) are able to watch and enjoy football."

When asked what advice she'd give to a mother whose son is about to be deployed, she said, "I wouldn't want to frighten them already; they're scared enough (about) their child going off. It's important for parents, wives and husbands to be very vigilant about what's going on. Pay close attention, and don't believe everything that the military tells you."

The San Jose woman plans to speak at four other Southern California libraries this week.
While she continues dealing with the healing process, she will always cherish the memories of her son.

"There's so much about him. I miss his laugh. I miss his wisdom," Mary Tillman said. "Pat was a very caring person, and he just kept growing as a person. Like a lot of young teenage boys, he could be very selfabsorbed and overly macho. As he went through college and started getting older, his sense of self improved, and he just became a gentler, wiser person.

"One of the last things he said to me before he went to Afghanistan was that the military made him a better person. It actually humbled him. . . . I can go on and on about Pat. He was the most serious person I ever knew but also the lightest guy I ever knew. He loved to laugh, and he loved life."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Family of U.S. soldier in dark about 'non-hostile' death

Story Highlights

Army Staff Sgt. Darris J. Dawson and another soldier were killed in Iraq this week
Another U.S. soldier is being held in connection with the killings
Dawson's father says he can't get a "straight answer" from the U.S. military
The U.S. military has classified the death as "non-hostile"

By Cal Perry

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Darryl Mathis waits in his Pensacola, Florida, home for the body of his 24-year-old son to return home from Iraq. Mathis, a military veteran himself, was seething with anger Thursday as he spoke about the death of Army Staff Sgt. Darris J. Dawson.

An unnamed U.S. soldier is accused of killing Army Staff Sgt. Darris J. Dawson in Iraq on Sunday.

Dawson, and Sgt. Wesley Durbin, 26, are said to have been shot and killed by another U.S. soldier on Sunday at a base south of Baghdad.

Darryl and his wife, Maxine (Dawson's stepmother), say the military has told them nothing about the incident: no details on his death, no information at all.

His voice shakes as he says he believes that the military has let him down.

"I'm very disappointed -- very," he said. "If I would get a straight answer, if they would actually tell me what's going on, I would have something to work on; but right now, I have nothing to work on. Everything I'm getting, I'm getting from the media."

His wife sobs as she says her stepson's death was foreshadowed by a phone call he made to her from Iraq.

"He said that he was more shaky sometimes of the soldiers than of the enemy, because of the young guys over there."

She said she asked him, "What in the world do you mean? You're afraid of your own soldiers?"
" 'These kids are trying to fight a war they know nothing about. ... They're jumpy. ... They're more scary than the enemy,' " she said he told her.

"And I said, 'Oh, God,' " said Maxine Mathis.

On any given day, CNN receives dozens of detailed news releases from the U.S. military, including those announcing U.S. military casualties. In the cases of Dawson and Durbin, there was no mention of their names, and the releases were terse.

"A multi-national division center soldier died this morning of non-combat related causes," the first release read. "The cause of death is under investigation."

A second release came later in the day.

"A second multi-national division center soldier died this morning of non-combat related causes. The solider died of wounds September 14 at a coalition forces combat Army support hospital," it read. "The incident is under investigation."

Inquiries Thursday from CNN were met with a news release that a press officer said had been drafted Wednesday. However, the release uncharacterisically had not been e-mailed out to reporters that day.

After naming the two soldiers and giving their rank and unit, it reads, "A U.S. soldier is in custody in connection with the shooting deaths. He is being held in custody pending review by a military magistrate. The incident continues under investigation." The release gives no other details.

The U.S. military is classifying the death of Sgt. Dawson as "non-hostile," something Dawson's father finds puzzling.

"I don't know. I really don't know," he said. "I just can't get it together with that. I had never heard that before. 'Non-hostile' in a war zone?"

Lt. Col. Paul Swiergosz is a public affairs officer for the area in Iraq where the incident took place. He says the "non-hostile" death classification was given "because the deaths were not the result of hostile enemy action."

But details on what happened remain scarce.

CNN phoned an Army base in Fort Stewart, Georgia, to ask for more details on the incident. CNN was then e-mailed another press release -- this one written by Gen. Tony Cucolo, the commanding general of the Third Infantry Division -- that a press officer said had been drafted on Wednesday.

That release also had not been e-mailed to reporters, as is customary. "We do know one soldier, a fellow noncommissioned officer, allegedly opened fire and mortally wounded his squad leader and fellow team leader," reads the statement.

A spokesman at Fort Stewart said, "A soldier has been taken into custody. The incident is under investigation, and that is all I can say."

The spokesman would not even confirm information in his commanding general's press statement.

Maxine Mathis says she is stunned at how her stepson's death has been handled by the military. She says the Army assigned someone to help the family with anything they needed once they found out Darris had been killed, but she and her husband don't know how he died.

She said her husband asked the liaison officer whether it was true that Darris had been killed by another U.S. solider. She said the officer denied it, insisting he didn't know anything else.

Darryl Mathis continues to express his disappointment in the lack of information from the military about his son, amid rumors his son's body could be home by Saturday.

"I don't even know where he's at, at this time," he said.

Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, said he thinks the way the military classifies deaths in Iraq is an attempt to keep the public combat numbers down.

"There is a clear and long-standing record, regarding the classification of causalities in Iraq to minimize combat losses. And we're seeing people wounded and killed that would have well been considered casualties from hostile action in previous conflicts. It's an attempt to conceal the actual cost of this war in terms of casualties," Muller said.

"The Department of Defense has announced the death of every service member who has given their life in operation Iraqi and Enduring Freedom," said a Pentagon spokesman, Col. Gary Keck.

"We have been open and transparent on the numbers of casualties suffered in these operations."
Mathis says his son wanted to come home to his wife and four young children and was in the process of applying for a transfer.

"Last I spoke to him was last week Monday. He called every Monday, and said he was checking his paperwork. He said he was going to call me back once he found out. That was the last I heard from him."

Mathis' wife cannot stop sobbing.

"We don't know why, we don't know why," she says "All we know is that our son died a useless, needless death. That's all we know."

--submitted by Lois Vanderbur

Soldier accused of killing two others in Iraq

A 3rd Infantry Division soldier is being accused to killing two others in Iraq earlier this week.

Third ID commander Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, has issued a statement Wednesday on the non-combat deaths of two Marne soldiers in Iraq.

Cucolo said, ""This is a tragic and senseless loss of two professional soldiers and NCOs, who were also husbands and fathers.

“There are some things we know right now, and there are some things we do not know.

“We do know one soldier, a fellow noncommissioned officer, allegedly opened fire and mortally wounded his squad leader and fellow team leader.

“We do know other soldiers arriving on the scene acted heroically, subduing the shooter and providing immediate medical attention to the two wounded NCOs.

“We do know medical personnel fought hard to save both mortally wounded soldiers.

“We also know the accused is in custody —— in control of military authorities in theater for now —— and the investigation is under way.

“And again, we also know we lost two professionals, two husbands, two fathers.

“What we do not know are the specific details of what happened or why. As the wheels of military justice turn, we will have more information on these two key questions that are on all of our minds."

The Department of Defense identified the dead soldiers as Staff Sgt. Darris J. Dawson, 24, of Pensacola, Fla., and Sgt. Wesley R. Durbin, 26, of Hurst, Texas.

They were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd ID.

The incident is still under investigation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Parents lead charge against Sacrifice Medal

Canwest News Service
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The new Sacrifice Medal 'recognizes the valued contribution of those who sacrificed their health or their lives while serving Canada.'

Grieving parents are leading an online protest against a new military medal meant to honour Canada's combat casualties in Afghanistan.

The Sacrifice Medal, announced by the Governor-General's office in August, will be awarded to members of the Canadian military wounded or killed in combat since October 2001.

The medal, which is similar in intent to the Purple Heart awarded to U.S. combat casualties, will only be given to those who died in battle or were wounded seriously enough to require medical treatment. It does not apply to soldiers who died in non-combat incidents, like accidents or "friendly fire."

"It's a slap in the face that Ottawa would come out and say that my son isn't entitled to a medal," said Ben Walsh of Regina. His son, Master Cpl. Jeffrey Walsh, died on Aug. 9, 2006 after he was apparently shot accidentally by a fellow soldier while on a routine patrol on a bumpy Afghan road.

Walsh and other parents of soldiers who died in non-combat incidents have launched an Internet petition calling on Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean to broaden the criteria for awarding the medal. As of Tuesday evening, the petition ran to 1,526 signatures.

They're also getting support from military families who lost loved ones in combat conditions. Sherry Clark's son Pte. Joel Wiebe was killed in June 2007, the day before his 23rd birthday, by a roadside bomb. She said the loss of a son or daughter in war shouldn't be judged by the circumstances of the death.

"It would be very hurtful to hear that your son or daughter's sacrifice wasn't good enough, wasn't deemed worthy enough by the current criteria," she said from her home in Edmonton.

"It's heartbreaking. Joel paid the ultimate sacrifice, as did every other one of those soldiers who was seriously wounded or killed. Their loss is no greater or no less than mine."

© Global News 2008