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Cornyn calls for hearings on Army recruiter suicides
January 23, 2009

U.S. Sen John Cornyn has formally requested congressional hearings to examine a recent rash of suicides among Houston-based Army recruiters, saying he believes the deaths demonstrate the enormous strain recruiters endure to sustain the country's all-volunteer force.

Written by Lindsay Wise, The Houston Chronicle

U.S. Sen John Cornyn has formally requested congressional hearings to examine a recent rash of suicides among Houston-based Army recruiters, saying he believes the deaths demonstrate the enormous strain recruiters endure to sustain the country's all-volunteer force.

The Texas Republican made the request in a letter sent Thursday to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate armed services committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee's ranking member.

"I strongly believe that this alarming trend, which is further evidence of the strain on our current force, necessitates the attention of Congress," Cornyn wrote.

McCain has read the letter and is open to the possibility of hearings, said his spokeswoman, Leah C. Geach.

"Senator McCain is very concerned about any increase in the numbers of suicides in the Armed Forces, and believes it's imperative that every preventative measure be taken to end these tragedies," Geach said.

Levin's spokesman declined to comment, saying the chairman had not seen the letter.

Four recruiters from the Houston Recruiting Battalion killed themselves between January 2005 and September 2008. All four were reassigned to recruiting duty after returning from tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. Recruiting has long been considered one of the military's most stressful jobs, especially at a time when America is fighting two wars.

An Army investigation, requested by Cornyn in October, found that poor leadership, job-related stress, personal matters and medical problems were factors in the recruiters' deaths.

As a result of the findings released Wednesday, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren ordered a rare one-day stand-down for all Army recruiters on Feb. 13 to focus on leadership training, suicide prevention and recruiter wellness. The Army also will assess working conditions throughout its recruiting battalions and review recruiter screening and selection processes, Army-wide suicide prevention training, and access to mental health care for recruiters, many of whom are stationed in rural areas far from military bases.

In a conference call Thursday from Washington, D.C., Cornyn said he was particularly troubled by the investigation's conclusion that the Houston battalion's leadership created an intimidating and threatening environment for recruiters, verbally abusing the soldiers and humiliating them if they failed to meet monthly quotas.

Commanders also violated Army regulations by assigning excessive recruiting goals to individual soldiers in order to meet the battalion's overall numbers, he said.

The recruiting goals for each of the Army's 38 battalions vary on a monthly basis, depending on the Army's needs. In Houston, for example, the 266-member battalion might have a goal of putting a total of 400 troops in boots in one month, but leaders still required each recruiter to sign at least two new soldiers during that period, no matter what.

"The recruiters were going after two contracts a month when they really should have been going after, say, 1.6 on average," said Brig. Gen. Dell Turner, who conducted the investigation. "It had the effect of increasing the workload on each recruiter," he said.

"Corners might have been cut  -- and they were -- given the exigencies of meeting recruiting goals," Cornyn said.

.He said he could not release details about ongoing disciplinary actions, "but I have been assured that those persons responsible are under review and that this is not limited to NCOs (non-commissioned officers), this actually goes up the command chain to include (commissioned) officers."

Hearings can examine if the problems in Houston extend beyond that battalion, the senator said.

"I have received a tremendous outpouring of letters and calls pertaining to these issues from both Texas constituents and others," Cornyn wrote to Levin and McCain. "These individuals, many of them current or past recruiters, have informed me that these problems are not limited to the Houston Recruiting Battalion, or even the Army, and may in fact be widespread across our Armed Forces."

Veterans' rights activist Paul Sullivan called on the Army to release a copy of its report to the public and echoed Cornyn's request for hearings.

"He should invite families of soldiers who completed suicide as well as suicide experts so senators and the public can fully understand the scope of the suicide crisis," said Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.


TIMELINE
• January 2005: A 32-year-old captain shot himself in Missouri City, according to U.S. Army Recruiting Command’s Doug Smith. The Iraq war veteran was stationed at battalion headquarters in Houston. The Army has not released his name or any details.

• March 6, 2007: Sgt. Nils Aron Andersson , 25, shot himself in a downtown parking garage the day after his wedding. His wife, Cassy Ann Walton, 28, killed herself the next day. The two-tour Iraq veteran had been stationed in River Oaks and Rosenberg .

• Aug. 9, 2008: Staff Sgt. Larry G. Flores Jr., 26, hanged himself in his garage in Palestine, Texas. Flores, who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, was stationed in Nacogdoches.

• Sept. 20, 2008: Sgt. 1st Class Patrick G. Henderson, 35, hanged himself in a shed behind his house in Henderson . The Iraq war veteran recruited for Longview station.

• Sept. 25, 2008: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn sent a letter to the Secretary of the Army Pete Geren questioning the policy of reassigning veterans to high-stress recruiting duty.

• Oct. 9, 2008: Cornyn sent a second letter to Geren to request “a thorough and unbiased” probe into the suicides amid allegations the chain of command in Houston covered up a toxic leadership climate and low morale.

• Nov. 3, 2008: Geren announced the Army has appointed Brig. Gen. Dell Turner to look into the suicides.

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 wsfsupport@conus.army.mil

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