October 10, 2008 – U.S. Sen. John Cornyn on Thursday called for an independent probe into a string of suicides among Houston-based Army recruiters, citing “very troubling” allegations that the chain of command interfered with official investigations in order to cover up a toxic leadership climate and low morale.
The Houston battalion has lost five recruiters to suicide since 2001, including two in the past two months.
Cornyn, a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, detailed his concerns in a letter sent Thursday to Secretary of the Army Pete Geren.
In the letter, the Republican senator said he recently heard from numerous Army recruiters and their family members who claim to have direct knowledge of “serious problems” within the Houston battalion. They told Cornyn that certain leaders in the battalion have attempted to block investigating officers from meeting with material witnesses and “strongly suggested” to subordinate officers that they should avoid portraying the chain of command in an unfavorable light, even if it meant lying in their statements to authorities.
“These allegations, if true, point to criminal misconduct punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” Cornyn wrote. “In addition, such actions would absolutely undermine and call into question the findings and conclusions of these investigations. Should these claims be substantiated, the relevant individuals must be held fully accountable for their misconduct and the resultant problems with the Houston Recruiting Battalion.”
Cornyn said the constituents who contacted him also accused the battalion’s senior leadership of “improper and unprofessional” practices such as mass punishment, organized hazing, and confrontational “counseling sessions,” in which recruiters who fail to fill their monthly quotas are insulted and threatened with being kicked out of the Army.
The senator said he’s particularly disturbed by reports of unreasonably long work hours and seven-day weeks that have “constrained recruiters’ family time and stressed their marriages.”
Cornyn asked Geren to appoint an outside investigator to review the allegations and requested a copy of the report.
The senator said he also is concerned about a “cultural disconnect” between detailed recruiters, who are assigned to recruiting duty, and permanent recruiters, who choose recruiting as their military career specialty. Permanent recruiters are non-deployable, Cornyn said, and might have trouble relating to detailed recruiters under their command, many of whom recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said efforts to encourage permanent recruiters to volunteer for deployment don’t go far enough, and suggested the Army reconsider its policy of granting permanent recruiters non-deployable status.
A spokesman for Geren’s office, Lt. Colonel David Patterson Jr., said he would be unable to respond to written questions about Cornyn’s letter before today. U.S. Army Recruiting Command and the Houston Recruiting Battalion declined to comment.
The battalion’s three most recent suicides all occurred within the past year and a half.
Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Henderson, 35, hanged himself in a shed behind his house on Sept. 20. He died six weeks after another recruiter, Staff Sgt. Larry Flores Jr., 26, hanged himself in his garage.
Suicides on the rise
Henderson, an Iraq veteran, worked at a station in Longview. Flores, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was station commander in Nacogdoches. Both men belonged to the battalion’s Tyler Company.
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.
The recruiters’ 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.
For the first time since the Vietnam War, the Army’s suicide rate is expected to exceed that of the general U.S. population, Army officials say.
Amid intensive efforts to reduce overall suicides, however, little attention has so far been paid to the unique pressures facing returning veterans assigned to high-stress noncombat jobs like recruiting.
In the wake of the suicides at the Houston battalion, that could change, veterans advocates say.
“The mental health toll of this war is really high, and especially if they’ve done two tours or more, that’s a recipe for disaster,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.