Response team to deploy here after deaths of 2 more recruiters
By LINDSAY WISE
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."
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.
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.
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.