February 12, 2009 – Staff Sgt. Daren Stewart remembers driving down a rural road in Arkansas and thinking how easy it would be to jerk the wheel and flip his car into a ditch.
The 27-year-old Iraq war veteran says he wasn’t suicidal. He just figured that injuring himself was the only way he could get any time off from his job as an Army recruiter.
“I would rather spend three years straight in Iraq, without coming home, without a break, than ever be a recruiter again,” said Stewart, who recruited in Hot Springs, Ark., from 2005 to 2008.
Five-hundred miles away in Houston, the suicides of four Army recruiters from a single battalion have focused lawmakers and veterans advocates on the enormous stress endured by soldiers tasked with refilling the ranks of the all-volunteer military during wartime.
In response to the deaths, the Army will suspend all recruiting nationwide Friday to focus on leadership training, suicide prevention and the health of its 8,900 recruiters. The Army Inspector General also is examining working conditions throughout U.S. Army Recruiting Command.
In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, current and former recruiters and their relatives from 10 of the Army’s 38 recruiting battalions detailed their own experiences in a job long considered one of the military’s toughest. They said the exhausting hours, degrading treatment and toxic command climate reported in Houston were not isolated incidents, but deep-rooted, widespread problems that have affected recruiters across the country for years.
Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley of U.S. Army Accessions Command said soldiers have a right to complain, but in visits to recruiting stations, he has encountered a very positive, sensitive command climate.
“I’m not going to ask for anecdotal information because I’ve been in the Army 33 years and if I walk into a unit and ask what is wrong, I get an earful, but when I ask what is good, I get balance,” said Freakley, whose command oversees USAREC.
At the strip mall in Hot Springs where Daren Stewart worked, however, most of the recruiters were on antidepressants or antianxiety medication.
They worked 12- to 14-hour shifts, six or seven days a week, Stewart said. Commanders cursed, humiliated and screamed at soldiers who fell short of monthly quotas, threatening to ruin their careers or withhold time off with loved ones, he said.
Stewart turned to alcohol to cope with stress so severe it destroyed his marriage and made his hair fall out.
Sgt. 1st Class Henry Patrick said fellow recruiters in the Hot Springs station were told to shift conversations with potential recruits away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That didn’t sit right with him.
“I’d tell them they had a 50-50 chance,” said Patrick, 43. “For the few people I did put in, they liked the fact that I was honest with them.”
Staff Sgt. Wade Bozeman, another Hot Springs recruiter, said he also hated the tacit expectation that he should compromise his ethics to meet recruiting goals, whether it meant falsifying records or lying to recruits.
Deeply depressed, the 37-year-old gained 50 pounds and started suffering from insomnia, blackouts and panic attacks. His wife, Jill Bozeman, asked his commanders for help, to no avail.
One morning in May 2008, Bozeman showed up at his home disoriented, fearful and angry. When he left, his wife panicked.
“I knew he’d lost it,” she said. “I picked up the phone, and I was shaking because I’m seeing him shoot a bunch of people or run his car into oncoming traffic or something.”
She called his station commander and told him he had two hours to help or she was going to call battalion headquarters and the local media.
Bozeman credits his wife for saving his life. Later that morning, he drove to Little Rock Air Force Base to be evaluated by a psychiatrist and checked himself into a mental hospital for four days. His therapist said he would likely suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder once he left recruiting.
The irony is that he was a good recruiter, Bozeman said. He won awards and was even asked to consider a future as a station commander.
“Eventually the system takes down whoever’s in it,” he said. “You either become part of it, or you go mad. I guess I did both.”
In Watertown, N.Y., Army recruiter Derrick Meadows’ rage and frustration nearly shattered his family, said his wife, Alison Meadows.
When the Afghanistan veteran struggled to meet quota, his commanders threatened to kick him out of the Army, she said.
“They’d tell him he sucks, tell him he’s not worth anything, tell him he doesn’t deserve to be a soldier,” she said.
The staff sergeant who had served in the military for 18 of his 37 years felt like a failure, she said. At home, his insecurity translated into anger.
“He just changed into a completely different person,” Alison said. “He was all the time mad. He was very frustrated. He would cry.”
In November, Derrick left recruiting and returned to a regular Army unit in Texas. His wife says she’s relieved, but still bitter.
“That’s all that matters, numbers and getting people in the Army,” she said. “Individual soldiers don’t matter. Families don’t matter.”
A hope for change
Steve Round, 38, was a top recruiter in Texas before becoming a recruiter trainer for the Salt Lake City battalion in the 1990s. His work took him to recruiting stations in seven states.
He remembers a recruiter who almost jumped off a bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, and another who showed up at the station buck naked and ended up in a mental hospital. Another attempted suicide in Roy, Utah, he said.
“It’s the way it’s been from 1980 to the present day,” Round said. “If you don’t put in your two people come hell or high water, you go from hero to zero very fast.”
Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Collins is optimistic USAREC can change. He recruited in Houston from 2006 to 2008 before becoming a station commander in Kokomo, Ind., where conditions are better. In the aftermath of the suicides in Houston, he said, USAREC announced shorter work hours for all recruiters.