Veterans rights activist Paul Sullivan said he was deeply disturbed by the report, especially Turner’s finding that less than 60 percent of soldiers who return from deployment to a recruiting assignment have been fully vetted for psychological problems. “The senior leaders at the Pentagon threw these Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to the wolves by ordering them to recruiting duty in a known toxic command environment without sufficient mental health screening,” said Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.
Recruiters had history of low morale; Report shows climate in Houston Army battalion bad since 2006
February 20, 2009, 7:12PM, Houston, Texas – The Army had ample evidence of low morale and poor leadership at the Houston Recruiting Battalion from internal investigations and inspections dating back to 2006, roughly three years before a brigadier general’s report uncovered the same problems at the battalion following a string of suicides among recruiters there.
According to documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle through a Freedom of Information Act request, Brig. Gen. Frank D. Turner’s investigation confirmed what the Army already knew about the poor command climate at the Houston battalion.
Three of the four suicides examined in the general’s probe, which concluded in December, occurred in the last two years. The documents released to the Chronicle this week raise new questions about what the Army did to address concerns raised by recruiters in Houston prior to those deaths.
In an interview today, Turner said he tracked the follow-up process that took place after each of the previous investigations and inspections of the Houston battalion and found that, in most cases, steps were taken to “cut the cancer” out and improve recruiters working conditions and morale, but he said more could have been done. “In hindsight, maybe different actions were warranted,” he said.
Turner said the Army has already taken “very concrete steps” in response to his report, including replacing leaders at both battalion and brigade levels.
“I’m convinced that good has come out of this,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, head of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, could not be reached for comment today.
Four recruiters assigned to the Houston battalion killed themselves between January 2005 and September 2008, including two who hanged themselves within weeks of each other last year. All four soldiers had served in Iraq or Afghanistan before being reassigned to recruiting duty, a job considered one of the most stressful in the Army, especially in wartime.
Following inquiries into the suicides by the Chronicle, Sen. John Cornyn wrote to Secretary of the Army Pete Geren in October to request an investigation.
The documents released to the newspaper include Turner’s final report, memos, e-mails, records of phone conversations and sworn statements related to the suicides in the Houston battalion. Many of the documents are heavily redacted.
In his report, Turner wrote that the Houston battalion has suffered from a poor command climate for years.
“The climate has been fostered by the leadership styles of several senior leaders, an unhealthy and singular focus on production at the expense of soldier and family considerations, persistent long hours and weekend duty with no predictability of time off,” he wrote.
As early as March 2006, documents show, an inspection by the Army Inspector General’s office revealed below average morale and micromanagement at the Houston battalion. A year later, an official with the Army’s Family Readiness Group visited the battalion in the wake of Sgt. Nils Aron Andersson’s suicide on March 6. The official found low morale in March 2007 and no improvement in August 2007.
In July 2008, a team from the Army’s Equal Opportunity Office once again noted low morale in the unit, and reported that the battalion commander’s policy of 13-hour work days was being abused by the station commanders and company leadership. Recommendations included “treat soldiers with dignity and respect” and “eliminate leading by intimidation and threats.”
Recruiters described a group known as the “Mafia,” a close-knit clique of Houston battalion commanders and permanent recruiters who operated outside the bounds of accepted policies and practices and closed ranks to protect its own.
“Soldiers feared reprisals for making negative comments about company leadership teams,” Turner wrote.
Recruiters also felt that their long work hours prevented them from maintaining strong personal relationships, he wrote. One recruiter said in a sworn statement that he didn’t know if he was going to be able to make his wedding even though he put in for the time off over weeks in advance. “I was told the day before my wedding that I would be off,” the recruiter wrote. “That is just an example of what we have to go through … And this causes animosity at home because my wife and I cannot plan.”
On July 2, 2008, the battalion commander, whose name has been redacted from the documents, sent an email to all commanders and 1st sergeants saying he’d been receiving too many calls about leaders violating policy and making recruiters work from 5:30 or 6:30 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night.
The commander wrote that the battalion was experiencing a tough period in recruiting but soldiers needed some predictability of their schedules despite the long hours.
“I’ve received 3 calls in the last 30 days on folks that were promised birthday and/or anniversary off and were called back to work on the day of the anniversary and during the birthday and/or anniversary party when they already had family and friends at their homes,” the commander wrote. “Absolutely poor leadership tactic, so let’s watch ourselves.”
In the same email, the commander stated he’d also been hearing complaints about abusive leadership in the battalion.
“I am also getting numerous calls on recruiters being called ‘dirtbags’ or ‘useless’ when they do not accomplish mission each month,” he wrote. In one case, a recruiter who produced more contracts than necessary three months in a row fell short of his goal on the fourth month. “[H]e was called a dirtbag and useless AND his wife was on listening in on the phone call, etc. . Again, this type of tactic is not leadership and must cease immediately,” the commander wrote.
Exactly one month later, Turner has confirmed, commanders inappropriately humiliated Staff Sgt. Larry G. Flores Jr. at low-production counseling session in which Flores and other recruiters who failed to meet monthly quotas had to defend their work ethics before a panel of superiors.
Flores friends and colleagues have said the 26-year-old station commander later told them the battalion’s command sergeant major had pressured him to admit he was a failure and that he wanted to quit, so it would make it easier to kick him out of recruiting or even out of the Army. Turner has said he believes the humiliating episode played a role in Flores’ suicide a week later.
Six weeks after Flores death, Sgt. 1st Class Patrick G. Henderson, 35, became the fourth Houston-based recruiter to commit suicide in less than four years when he hanged himself in a shed behind his home. Henderson and Flores served in the battalion’s Tyler company.
Cornyn met with a dozen recruiters at their station in a River Oaks strip mall this morning and spoke at a press conference afterward. He said was impressed with the objectivity of Turner’s report and said he hopes to follow up with congressional hearings.
The Texas Republican said he hasn’t had a chance to read the report, which was delivered to his D.C. office this morning, but he has been briefed on it.
“I would say to the extent that these problems have been identified before and not acted on appropriately, that’s certainly going to be part of the subject matter of the hearing the Senate armed services committee is going to have in the very near future,” the senator said. “So this is not the beginning and this is not the end. I would say we’re sort of in the middle phase of this investigation, and we’ll see what we can learn from it.”
Veterans rights activist Paul Sullivan said he was deeply disturbed by the report, especially Turner’s finding that less than 60 percent of soldiers who return from deployment to a recruiting assignment have been fully vetted for psychological problems.
“The senior leaders at the Pentagon threw these Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to the wolves by ordering them to recruiting duty in a known toxic command environment without sufficient mental health screening,” said Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.
Houston Chronicle Reporter Lindsay Wise: email@example.com
RESOURCES FOR SOLDIERS, FAMILIES
• Veterans experiencing emotional and suicidal crisis, as well as their concerned family members or friends, have immediate access to emergency counseling services 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 800-273-TALK (8255).
• For information on suicide warning signs visit www.behavioralhealth.army.mil.
• The Army’s Battlemind Training System is a mental health awareness and education program that helps prepare soldiers and their families for the stresses of war and assists with the detection of possible mental health issues before and after deployment. Visit www.battlemind.org.
• Soldiers in crisis should talk to their chaplain, chain of command or a fellow soldier immediately. They may also call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-SUICIDE.
• Call the Wounded Soldier and Family Hotline at 800-984-8523 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.