General Heads Recruiter Suicide Probe



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General Heads Recruiter Suicide Probe

The Army has appointed a brigadier general to investigate allegations that commanders of a Houston-based recruiting battalion tried to cover up a toxic leadership climate and low morale after a recent string of suicides, according to a letter obtained Thursday by the Chronicle.

The letter from Secretary of the Army Pete Geren to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn came in response to the senator's request for an independent probe into five suicides at the Houston Recruiting Battalion, including two in recent months.

The two-page letter, dated Nov. 3, constitutes the top Army official's first comments on the deaths to surface publicly.

Geren wrote that he shared Cornyn's concern about the suicides and reports of "undue command influence within the Houston Recruiting Battalion investigations." He pledged to work with the senator's staff to provide answers "after we review and assess these issues."

Cornyn on Thursday said he is pleased with the Army's response so far, but his office will to continue to monitor developments and pursue further action as needed.

"I think it's a good start, and we'll see what the investigation reveals," the Texas Republican said, "but if I get any hint that they are not truly getting to the bottom of it, then I intend to pursue my call for an independent investigation."

Cornyn, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he also would like to hold congressional hearings on mental health issues faced by returning combat veterans assigned to high-stress recruiting duty.

Houston battalion recruiters have said they regularly work 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week. Many have to deal with long commutes to rural stations far from a military base. They have said if they don't sign at least two new recruits a month, they're punished with even longer duty hours and threatened with losing rank or receiving bad evaluation reports.

"I want to make sure this is not an Army-wide problem," Cornyn said. "If it is, then that's an even more serious issue than what's going on in this one battalion."

In the letter, Geren informed Cornyn that Brig. Gen. Frank Turner of the U.S. Army Accessions Command has been assigned to lead the investigation and make recommendations.

In addition, the U.S. Army Recruiting Command is conducting fatality review boards and line-of-duty investigations into the two most recent suicides, Geren wrote.

His letter also acknowledged that Soldiers assigned to recruiting duty in remote areas might not have full access to the Army's mental health services. Geren wrote that he is ordering a general in charge of training and doctrine to work with the surgeon general "to ensure we are addressing the full range of needs of our recruiters."

Cornyn said he'll wait and see how the investigation turns out before deciding on his next step.

"Part of the concern is reviewing the chain of command to make sure that they are not covering things up and they are not discouraging people from coming forward with legitimate complaints," the senator said.

Cornyn had asked Geren to appoint an independent investigator after he heard from numerous recruiters, and their relatives, who said they had direct knowledge of serious problems in the Houston battalion. They accused the unit's leadership of attempting to block investigating officers from meeting with material witnesses and "strongly suggesting" to subordinate officers that they should avoid portraying the chain of command in an unfavorable light, even if it meant lying in statements to authorities.

Cornyn said the constituents who contacted him also accused the battalion's senior leadership of mass punishment, organized hazing and humiliating "counseling sessions," in which recruiters who fail to fill their monthly quotas are insulted and threatened with being kicked out of the Army.

Three of the five suicides in the Houston battalion occurred within the past year and a half.

In March 2007, 25-year-old Sgt. Nils Aron Andersson shot himself to death in a Houston parking garage. Andersson, a two-tour Iraq veteran, was assigned to the Houston battalion's Rosenberg station.

On Aug. 9, Staff Sgt. Larry G. Flores Jr., 26, hanged himself in his garage. Six weeks later, Sgt. 1st Class Patrick G. Henderson, 35, hanged himself in a shed behind his house. Both he and Flores belonged to the battalion's Tyler Company.

Flores, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, was the station commander in Nacogdoches. Henderson, who served in Iraq, worked at a station in Longview.

The U.S. Army Recruiting Command initially reported that all five individuals who committed suicide in the Houston area since 2001 were recruiters, but on Thursday a command spokesman, Douglas Smith, said one was a recruit assigned to the battalion's Future Soldier Training Program.

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.

In his letter, Geren wrote that the Army will continue to work on reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment, raising awareness of suicide risk factors, and decreasing the overall stress of Soldiers.

Houston-based recruiters say they're encouraged by the general's investigation, but so far there's little evidence that all the attention will improve their daily lives in a job considered one of the toughest in the Army, especially during wartime.

Sgt. 1st Class Bobby Dykes worked under Flores and was friends with Henderson. A few months after their suicides, he still rarely leaves the office before 8 p.m.

A veteran of Afghanistan, Dykes said he has more trouble dealing with the long hours and pressures of recruiting than he did with the dangers of combat.

"I have high hopes for change in the lifestyle out here, but progress thus far makes that possibility seem bleak at best," Dykes said.


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