May 18, 2008 – Army recruiter Nils Aron Andersson sat behind the wheel of his brand-new Ford F-150, firing round after round into the truck’s CD player and radio with a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Spent cartridges littered the seats and floorboards, along with a paper pharmacy bag holding a prescription for the antidepressant Lexapro.
Andersson’s wife, Cassy Walton, had been trying to reach the 25-year-old sergeant on his cell phone for hours. He finally picked up about 2 a.m. and told her he wanted to kill himself.
Walton begged him to keep talking to her. Andersson told her he was on the top floor of a downtown Houston parking garage and ended the call. Then he put the pistol to his head, just above his right ear.
Minutes later, Walton raced up the stairs of the garage to find her husband of less than 24 hours slumped on the driver’s side of his truck, bleeding from a single bullet wound to his right temple.
Sobbing, she unlocked the truck with her own key, climbed onto his lap, and started CPR.
“Why did you do this?” she screamed.
When Andersson killed himself on March 6, 2007, he became one of at least 16 Army recruiters to commit suicide nationwide since 2000. Five of those suicides occurred in Texas, including three at the Houston Recruiting Battalion, where Andersson worked after serving two tours of duty in Iraq.
Roughly one in five U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reports symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, but only slightly more than half have sought treatment, according to a recently published Rand Corp. study. Of those who did seek care, only about half received minimally adequate treatment, the study found.
Amid increasing concerns about failure to screen, diagnose and treat soldiers with mental health problems adequately, Andersson’s story raises questions about the pressures faced by the growing number of veterans who return from multiple combat deployments to high-stress recruiting assignments back home.
Leaving for Iraq
A quiet, skinny kid who loved to fish, hunt and ride ATVs along the Oregon coast, where he was born, Andersson — who preferred his middle name Aron — joined the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in 2002, three years after graduating high school.
In 2003, he left to fight in the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It was the first time he’d been abroad in his life.
“I probably prayed more in the first six months than I had in a long while,” said his father, Bob Andersson, 53, who works for the city parks department in Eugene, Ore. “Every time the phone rings, you panic. I’m not kidding you there; for months, I’d come home and I’d stop at the end of the street and go, ‘God, I hope there’s not a car with military plates in front of my house.’ “
Andersson earned a Bronze Star with valor for saving the lives of two other soldiers during a firefight. But when he came home, the soldier avoided his family’s questions about the war.
Relieved to have him back, they didn’t press him.
“When I asked him how he’d earned his Bronze Star, he just said, ‘Doing my job, Dad,’ ” Bob Andersson said.
The father remembers looking at photographs taken during his son’s service in Iraq and feeling helpless to understand what the young man had been through.
“You can’t imagine what was going on,” he said. “You can see the pictures, but you still weren’t there to smell it, or feel the heat, or see the cars burning or what was left of someone after a bomb went off.”
The only thing the father knew for sure was that his son had changed. He was more frustrated, less patient and harder to talk to.
“Did he come back different? Yeah,” Bob Andersson said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who goes over there and fights on the front lines who ever comes back the same.”
The soldier once told his father about working a barricade in Iraq when a white van barreled toward U.S. troops, ignoring warning shots and orders to stop.
“It was definitely a suicide mission, and he said this van full of people came in and they had to, quote, ‘light it up,’ ” Bob Andersson said. “And he said there were children in there and everything. I could tell that really, really, bothered him.”
Life as a recruiter
When Andersson transferred to the Houston Recruiting Battalion, his father hoped that he would be able to put the past behind him. Instead, he became more depressed.
“He had a heart of gold and that, I think, is what killed him. Because he got into something so outrageously different than his basic makeup, and he just couldn’t get over it.”
As a recruiter stationed in River Oaks and Rosenberg, Andersson often worked six days a week, routinely got home after 11 p.m., and would sometimes weep from despair and exhaustion, said his ex-girlfriend Marsha Maxey, a mortgage banker who dated the soldier before he met Cassy Walton.
Maxey met Andersson in August 2005 at an Irish pub in Columbia, S.C., where he was attending recruiter school at Fort Jackson.
“He was a good-looking man — tall, blue eyes, blond hair, smart, funny and kind. A sensitive guy and a man in uniform, that whole thing,” Maxey said. “He swept me off my feet.”
Their 14-year age difference was never a problem, said Maxey, who is 40. “It worked out very well because he was an old soul,” she said. “He’d seen a lot of things for his young age.”
Two months into a whirlwind romance, she moved to Texas to be with him when Andersson began his new job with the Houston Recruiting Battalion.
“It was instantly an incredibly stressful job,” Maxey said. “From the beginning since I met him, he cried very easily and I thought, ‘Oh, he’s just sensitive,’ but then it got worse.”
Occasionally, Andersson talked to Maxey about his time in Iraq. The details slipped out in bits and pieces — like a story about surviving a deadly helicopter crash, or carrying a wounded buddy to safety after his unit was ambushed.
“He told me he kicked down over 1,000 doors,” Maxey said. “He was the lead guy, the first one to go in, and most of the time it was the wrong place. There would be terrified old people and little kids sitting there.”
Andersson suffered from dramatic mood swings. He got nervous in big crowds and would wake up in the middle of the night “just screaming,” Maxey said.
Andersson also developed a low self-esteem and an extreme fear of abandonment, she said. A few months before he committed suicide, he sent Maxey a text message saying he was “going to get rid of himself because he was a monster like Saddam,” she recalled.
“He would just get so distraught over his job and the things he’d seen,” Maxey said. “It was more than he could take.”
Making matters worse, Andersson felt uncomfortable in the role of salesman for the Army. He was painfully honest with prospective recruits, even if his candor turned them off, she said.
“He was morally opposed to putting more young men into that situation, where they could be injured or killed or see the things he’d seen,” Maxey said.
His superiors repeatedly criticized him for failing to meet his goal of signing two new recruits a month and assigned him five-page essays or extra duty as punishment, she said. In February 2006, he was passed up for promotion to staff sergeant.
“It wasn’t that he was lazy or not working. It’s just that he was not getting recruits and being punished for it, constantly,” she said. “It was just not the job for him.”
Andersson was proud to be a soldier, but he wasn’t cut out for recruiting, said his friend Chris Rodriguez.
Long hours, few days off and mounting pressure to deliver fresh volunteers made life “truly awful,” Rodriguez said in a series of e-mails and a telephone interview with the Houston Chronicle from Anbar Province in Iraq, where he was serving a tour of duty at the time of Andersson’s death.
”In the recruiting station I was at, a good third of the people went on antidepressants while working there,” said Rodriguez, who met Andersson in Texas while assigned to the Houston Recruiting Battalion. “You could come to work as motivated as you wanted, but as soon as you passed the threshold of the doorway, it’d suck the life away from you. Looking around, you’d see miserable people.”
If recruiters failed to sign up enough prospects, their commanders told them they were failures, Rodriguez said. “They tell you, ‘That’s why your buddy in Iraq doesn’t have a full battalion, because you’re letting him down,’ “he said.
The stress took its toll. Back in Iraq, Rodriguez had nightmares about his time recruiting in Houston.
“The pressure recruiting puts on you wears you down so badly,” he said. “We often said that we’d rather be in Iraq than recruiting. It’s true.”
Threats of suicide
By October 2006, Andersson’s problems had become too serious to ignore.
When he put a gun in his mouth during an argument with Maxey, she called Andersson’s father, who contacted the Army.
When he heard what his father had done, Andersson was furious.
“He said, ‘Thanks for ruining my career, Dad,’ ” his father said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry about that, Aron.’ And he goes, ‘Why did you do it?’ I just told him, ‘You know, if something happened to you and I could’ve done anything at all to prevent it and I didn’t, I could never live with myself. Because the only thing I’m sure of in this world is the father’s supposed to die before the children.’ “
The next day, an officer took Andersson to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he underwent three days of tests and counseling. A psychiatrist determined he was “clinically depressed but no immediate danger to himself,” Army records show.
“The psychiatrist told him he had depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and said he would send him a referral for a psychiatrist and therapist in Houston, but he never did,” Maxey said. “Aron never received any follow-up.”
Medical records from Brooke Army Medical Center show that Andersson was prescribed medication for depression and anxiety after doctors evaluated him for potential self-harm on Oct. 23, 2006. Records also show at least two subsequent appointments were canceled by the facility and one by Andersson.
Meanwhile, Andersson’s commanders at the Houston Recruiting Battalion directed his station in Rosenberg to keep an eye on him and ordered his weapons to be taken away.
But Andersson managed to keep the .22-caliber pistol he’d used to threaten suicide.
His parents say their son’s commanders and doctors should have monitored him more closely to ensure he was getting the help he needed.
“Obviously, they did not take it seriously enough,” said Andersson’s mother, Charlotte Porter. “He needed to have a break period. He needed to be removed from his position and get treatment.”
As a soldier who served his country honorably, Andersson deserved the best possible care, regardless of whether his wounds were physical or mental, his father said.
“I don’t think Aron let the Army down, I think the Army let him down,” he said. “I think that the care wasn’t there that he really needed.”
A new relationship
By December 2006, Andersson still hadn’t started regular therapy.
As his relationship with Maxey fell apart, he met Cassy Walton, a vivacious investment banker who also struggled with severe depression. He eventually would leave the Texas Avenue apartment he shared with Maxey at Lofts at the Ballpark to move into Walton’s loft in the old Rice Hotel building, a dozen blocks away.
The day before New Year’s Eve, Andersson threatened suicide again, this time in front of Walton.
In January, Walton sent an e-mail addressed to Andersson and a handful of other people, announcing she planned to kill herself.
Neither went through with their threats, but their deadly brinksmanship worried those around them.
“It’s amazing that two people so volatile could get together like that,” Maxey said. “I don’t know if they were trying to rescue each other, to keep each other from committing suicide, but it turned out to be the worst combination. They both needed help so badly.”
Walton had bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depression, said her sister, Cindy Walton.
It was a condition she shared with their mother, who killed herself in October 2003 by setting her car on fire.
“Cassy was never the same after that,” her sister said. “She was a real mama’s girl.”
A short, tragic marriage
It wasn’t until the day the couple married, March 5, 2007, that Andersson finally had an appointment with a psychiatrist in Houston.
Afterward, Andersson sent his friend Chris Rodriguez an online message: “I went to the wizard today, she told me that I need to get out of the army and my job sucks. I could have told her that … but anyhow. I will be alright.”
He told Rodriguez he’d replaced his old Jeep Wrangler with a Ford F-150, but he never mentioned he’d married Cassy Walton in a brief civil ceremony at 8:30 that morning. Andersson didn’t tell his parents or younger brother, John, either.
The newlyweds had agreed to meet up after work, but Andersson came home around 8:45 p.m. to an empty apartment. His bride was celebrating their marriage with friends at Shay McElroy’s Irish Pub downtown on Main.
Walton later told police Andersson “seemed to be upset because she was not paying as much attention to him as he thought she should be.”
The couple argued. Andersson stormed out and drove to Maxey’s apartment, where the recruiter told his ex-girlfriend he feared he’d made a big mistake.
Then Walton arrived.
“She was beating on the door like she was going to knock it down,” Maxey said. “I just thought, ‘This is crazy. I can’t put up with this kind of stuff.’ “
Maxey told Andersson she’d had enough.
“As much as I loved him, I knew I shouldn’t be in that relationship,” she said. He left about 1:30 a.m. but called her again on his cell phone. “He said, ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ ” Andersson finally agreed to go spend the night with a friend.
Instead, he locked himself inside his new Ford pickup on the top floor of Maxey’s parking garage with the same .22-caliber pistol he’d put in his mouth in October.
Less than an hour later, he was dead.
The phone call
A phone ringing at 3 a.m. jarred Bob Andersson from sleep to the news that his son had killed himself.
He wasn’t surprised.
“It was really surreal,” he said. “I’d been hoping and praying, of course, that it would never happen, and then when it did, there wasn’t any shock. I mean, it wasn’t shock, it was just your worst nightmare.”
He called his son’s commanders at the recruiting battalion to tell them Aron had committed suicide. A sergeant answered the phone.
“He said, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ Then he called up a major and said, ‘I’ve got Sgt. Andersson’s dad on the phone, and he says Aron shot himself,’ ” Bob Andersson recalled. “And that’s when I overheard the major ask him, ‘How in the hell could he shoot himself? We confiscated all his guns.’ “
New threats of suicide
Three hours after Houston police called Andersson’s mother to report her son’s suicide, the phone rang again. On the other end of the line, a woman named Cassy Walton identified herself as Andersson’s wife.
Charlotte Porter, who is divorced from Andersson’s father, knew Walton had been dating her son for about three months. She had no idea the couple had married less than 24 hours before her son’s death.
“I knew about her and that he had moved in with her,” said Porter, 51, a staffing representative with a temp agency in Eugene. “I had never met her. And I’d never talked to her before, either.”
Police had found Walton sobbing and screaming as she tried to perform CPR on Andersson’s body.
Now, on the phone with her mother-in-law, Walton told Porter she wanted to join him.
“I said, ‘Cassy, are you alone? You can’t be alone,’ ” Porter said.
Walton gave her a friend’s phone number to call in Houston.
Porter hung up and immediately dialed the number. “You need to go to Cassy right now,” she said.
Walton’s friends took her to nearby St. Joseph Medical Center for psychiatric care. She still wore clothes drenched in her husband’s blood when she voluntarily committed herself.
Her younger sister, Cindy Walton, was relieved to hear her sibling had been hospitalized. She worried her sister might try to hurt herself now that she’d lost both her mother and her husband to suicide.
“I understood the hospital was going to hold her for 24 hours because she had mentioned suicide,” she said. About 8:30 p.m., however, Cassy Walton checked herself out and asked one of Andersson’s commanders, Maj. Bruce Finklea, to drive her home.
Finklea dropped Walton off at her apartment with a friend, Amanda Powell. Later, Powell called Finklea back and asked him to return Walton to the hospital.
But Walton refused to go. Finklea called 911.
When police arrived, Walton told them she was not suicidal, just tired. Police said they saw nothing wrong with her and left.
The next morning, the Houston Recruiting Battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Troy Reeves, visited Walton at her apartment, where she also met with a casualty assistance officer. At some point, however, Walton was left alone again.
She went to a sporting goods store and bought a 9 mm handgun. Then she started drinking.
A few hours later, Walton called Andersson’s younger brother, John, in Oregon. Walton said she had a gun and did not want to live. The Anderssons alerted Houston police, but as officers tried to talk to her through the door of her apartment at Post Rice Lofts, Walton pulled the trigger.
Police found her sprawled on her bed wearing Andersson’s fatigue jacket and dog tags. She was pronounced dead at 7:45 p.m. March 7, 2007 — one day after Andersson killed himself, and two days after their wedding.
Mourning a soldier
During a yearlong review of the couple’s suicides by the Chronicle, Army officials declined to answer questions about the circumstances of their deaths, instead referring the newspaper to documents obtained by family members and a reporter through the Freedom of Information Act.
In a written statement, Lt. Col. Reeves praised Andersson as “an outstanding fallen comrade.”
Although he said privacy laws prevented him from discussing Andersson’s diagnoses, treatment or death, Reeves stressed that the well-being of the battalion’s soldiers is “a priority.”
Whenever commanders become aware of the need for a recruiter or his family to obtain mental health treatment, they “seek recommendations from medical professionals and work diligently to implement these recommendations,” Reeves wrote.
The entire battalion was hit hard by Andersson’s death, he added. Fellow recruiters held a memorial in Houston, and some traveled to Oregon for his funeral. “We still feel and grieve the loss of Sgt. Andersson, a brother in arms, whose tragic death still causes us … to ask questions to which we may never know or fully understand the answers.”
Two families in grief
For Bob Andersson and others left to mourn the young couple, grief is sharpened by regret.
Months after his son’s suicide, the father found himself sorting through photographs at his dining room table in Springfield, Ore., peering at the features of his older child as though he might read some message in his face — a warning, a plea for help, an explanation.
“This is the first thing I think of every morning when I wake up,” he said recently. “I’ve cried more since Aron died than I have the 52 years behind me.”
It took Walton’s sister months to get over her anger toward Andersson. She had met him only once or twice before her sister suddenly announced they were getting married. She thought the soldier seemed “cold” and emotionally disconnected.
“I blamed him for a long time. I actually told his dad I wanted to burn his stuff because I thought my sister just didn’t need to meet somebody with such mental problems,” said Cindy Walton, who lives with her 7-year-old son, Randy, in Humble. “Now, learning about his sickness, I don’t blame him. I feel bad for his family because his family’s in pain.”
Two months ago, the 28-year-old Realtor received a surprise care package from Andersson’s mother, Charlotte Porter. The box held a snow globe inscribed in memory of her sister.
A few days later, the two women spoke on the phone for the first time and wept, Porter said. “I suffer, too, every day, and there’s a bond there,” she said.
Porter recently joined a support group for parents with soldiers in Iraq.
Sometimes a parent worried about a son or daughter suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression will ask Porter what they should do. She’s not sure what to tell them.
Whenever she had asked her son how he was doing, he’d told her he was fine, that she worried too much, that he was trying to get help. She’d wanted to believe him. He was proud, and she didn’t want to pry. Now she wishes she had.
“I feel bad I didn’t get to know sooner what was going on,” Porter said. “I just wish I had walked right into that recruiting office, grabbed him by the collar and said, ‘You’re not getting him back until he’s straightened out.’ “