Selling war was his undoing, widow says

Army investigates four recruiters' suicides in Texas

Amanda Henderson displayed a photo of her husband, Sergeant Patrick Henderson, who hanged himself in his shed. Amanda Henderson displayed a photo of her husband, Sergeant Patrick Henderson, who hanged himself in his shed. (Herb Nygren Jr./ Associated Press)
By Michelle Roberts
Associated Press / December 23, 2008
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HENDERSON, Texas - Sergeant Patrick Henderson, a strapping Iraq combat veteran, spent the last, miserable months of his life as an Army recruiter, cold-calling dozens of people a day from his strip-mall office and sitting in strangers' living rooms, trying to sign up their sons and daughters for an unpopular war.

He put in 13-hour days, six days a week, often encountering abuse from young people or their parents. When he and other recruiters would gripe about the pressure to meet their quotas, their superiors would snarl that they ought to be grateful they were not in Iraq, according to his widow.

Less than a year into the job, Henderson - afflicted with flashbacks and sleeplessness after his tour of battle in Iraq - went into his backyard shed, slid the chain lock in place, and hanged himself.

He became, at age 35, the fourth member of the Army's Houston Recruiting Battalion to commit suicide in the past three years - something Henderson's widow and others blame on the psychological scars of combat, combined with the pressure-cooker job of trying to sell the war.

"Over there in Iraq, you're doing this high-intensive job you are recognized for. Then, you come back here, and one month you're a hero, one month you're a loser because you didn't put anyone in," said Staff Sergeant Amanda Henderson, who is also an Iraq veteran and a former recruiter in the battalion.

The Army has 38 recruiting battalions in the United States. Patrick Henderson's is the only one to report more than one suicide in the past six years.

The Army began an investigation after being prodded by Amanda Henderson and Texas Senator John Cornyn. Cornyn, a Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he will press for Senate hearings.

"We need to get to the bottom of this as soon as we can," he said.

The all-volunteer military is under heavy pressure to sign up recruits and retain soldiers while it wages two wars.

Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command, acknowledged that recruiting is a demanding job but said counseling and other support are available.

"I don't have an answer to why these suicides in Houston Recruiting Battalion occurred, but perhaps the investigation that is underway may shed some light on that question," he said.

In all, 15 of the Army's 8,400 recruiters have committed suicide since 2003. During that period, more than 540 of the Army's half-million active-duty soldiers killed themselves.

The 266-member Houston battalion covers a huge swath of east Texas, from Houston to the Arkansas line. Henderson committed suicide Sept. 20. Another battalion member, Staff Sergeant Larry Flores Jr., hanged himself in August at age 26; Sergeant Nils Andersson, 25, fatally shot himself in March 2007; and in 2005, a captain at battalion headquarters took his life, though the military has not disclosed any details. All served combat tours before their recruiting assignments.

Charlotte Porter, Andersson's mother, said her son - who served two tours in Iraq with the 82d Airborne and earned a Bronze Star - couldn't lie to recruits about the war and felt an enormous burden to ensure they could become the kind of soldiers he would want to serve with.

"He wasn't a complainer," said his 51-year-old mother, who is from Eugene, Ore. "He felt like a failure."

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said recruiting these days "is arguably the toughest job in the military."

"They're under incredible stress. You can see it on their faces," he said.

In Iraq, Henderson helped lead other infantrymen on risky "snatch-and-grab" missions and saw several buddies die.

He had been stationed in Germany before going to Iraq. After his tour was up, he was assigned to recruiting. He didn't particularly want to leave the infantry, but going to recruiting allowed him to move back to the United States, his widow said.

Like most recruiters, he began his day with paperwork, followed by cold calls to high school graduates and college students. He spent lunches trying to chat up high schoolers outside the cafeteria, and then, more phone calls - often 150 a day, according to his widow.

He spent evenings on the living room sofas or at the dining room tables of the few interested young people, trying to sell them and their families on the Army's opportunities while easing their fears. Some recruits' parents were hostile.

"They are completely outright nasty to you. That's stressful to you right then and there because you have some mother or father just ripping you apart," Amanda Henderson said.

Smith, the Army spokesman, said recruiting duty "often does entail long hours during the week and on weekends." But he added: "There are other duty assignments in the Army that entail long hours, such as being deployed."

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