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Recruiting stand-down ordered

Probe of Houston suicides prompts wide-ranging action

Jan. 27, 2009 - 10:09AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 27, 2009 - 10:09AM  |  
Army Secretary Pete Geren has ordered a stand-down of the Army's entire recruiting force in the wake of a wide-ranging investigation of four suicides in the Houston Recruiting Battalion.
Army Secretary Pete Geren has ordered a stand-down of the Army's entire recruiting force in the wake of a wide-ranging investigation of four suicides in the Houston Recruiting Battalion. (Al Grillo / The Associated Press)
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Army Secretary Pete Geren has ordered a stand-down of the Army's entire recruiting force and a review of almost every aspect of the job is underway in the wake of a wide-ranging investigation of four suicides in the Houston Recruiting Battalion.

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Army Secretary Pete Geren has ordered a stand-down of the Army's entire recruiting force and a review of almost every aspect of the job is underway in the wake of a wide-ranging investigation of four suicides in the Houston Recruiting Battalion.

Poor command climate, failing personal relationships and long, stressful work days were factors in the suicides, the investigation found. The investigating officer noted a "threatening" environment in the battalion and that leaders may have tried to influence statements from witnesses.

"There were some things found that are disturbing," said Brig. Gen. Del Turner, deputy commanding general for Accessions Command and the officer who conducted the investigation.

While he declined to discuss what action might be taken, Turner has recommended disciplinary action against battalion- and brigade-level commanders. He declined to discuss what action might be taken.

The report was not made public, with officials citing extensive personal information contained in the report.

The four recruiters who killed themselves were all combat veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan. The Army did not identify them.

The Army Inspector General's office has been asked to conduct a command-wide assessment of Recruiting Command to determine if conditions uncovered in Houston exist elsewhere.

The one-day stand-down of all 7,000 active Army and 1,400 Army Reserve recruiters will be Feb. 13.

The soldiers will receive training on leadership, a review of the expectations of Recruiting Command's leaders, suicide prevention and resiliency training, coping skills and recruiter wellness, Turner said.

"It's significant," Turner said about the stand-down. "It is not routinely scheduled. It normally occurs after some sort of major event like this."

Turner was appointed to conduct the investigation on Oct. 14 by Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, commanding general of Accessions Command. The investigation was sought by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who heard from soldiers and family members after the Houston Chronicle in 2008 reported the suicides.

"I think that when you have something like this happen that's this serious and has such a huge impact on families and loved ones, of course people will ask what's going on," Freakley said.

Recruiters and soldiers who are going to be recruiters, their families and the public are going to want to know what's happening and what's being done, he said.

"We're very aware of our soldiers' concerns and we want to make it better," Freakley said.

USAREC is a strong command with good leaders and exceptional soldiers, Freakley said.

"I do not believe for a minute that this is endemic of the entire command whatsoever, but I do believe that one [suicide] is too many, and we had four," he said. "So let's fix this and move forward and grow from this in a positive way. It's hard work, but the whole Army has hard work right now."

Turner's investigation was completed Dec. 23, and Turner said his work revolved around the four suicides that occurred between January 2005 and September. Findings from the investigation were released Jan. 21.

"It's a very tough and very tragic thing," he said. "But I'm focused on what good can come out of this and that's where our focus is right now."

There were 17 suicides within Recruiting Command between fiscal years 2001 and 2008, said Col. Michael Negard, a Training and Doctrine Command spokesman.

There were more than 500 suicides by active-duty soldiers across the Army from Jan. 1, 2003, through Aug. 31, according to data from the Army G-1. Another 31 cases were pending final determination, as of Aug. 31.

The Army's suicide rate increased from 12.4 for every 100,000 soldiers in 2003 to 18.1 in 2007, an all-time high for the service. Nationwide, the suicide rate for every 100,000 people was 19.5 in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gen. Pete Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, voiced his concern in a Jan. 23 interview with Army Times.

"We need to move out as quickly as we can to do those things that are going to lower the numbers," Chiarelli said. "That's the best we can do. We can't eliminate suicide."

"I believe there are certain things leaders can do in the short run to reverse the trend and I'm going to talk about those next week," Chiarelli said.

Turner said he examined the four soldiers' personal lives, from their financial and medical histories to their performance at work. He also studied organizational factors such as command climate, leadership within the battalion, brigade and Recruiting Command. He looked at screening soldiers for recruiting duty, the impact of assigning soldiers directly to that duty after they return from combat tours, the adequacy of the Army's suicide prevention training, and soldiers' access to mental health care.

Here is what Turner said he found:

• There was poor command climate in the recruiting battalion, one of 38 in the Army.

Morale was low among the unit's 200-plus recruiters, who routinely worked 12- to 14-hour days. They had unpredictable work schedules, frequently working on weekends. There was a "threatening type of environment" established by certain leaders throughout the battalion's chain of command.

Monthly missions assigned by USAREC were bumped up, violating Army regulations and adding stress. For example, in July 2008, the battalion's 205 recruiters each had to recruit two new soldiers a month, even though the battalion's mission was 360 contracts, which is roughly the equivalent of 1.5 or 1.6 new contracts each.

"I don't think it was malicious necessarily," Turner said, "but what that does is it artificially ups their work load."

• All four soldiers who killed themselves suffered from "troubled" or "failing" personal relationships.

Turner said he did not find any common thread of significant financial stress among the four men and none had been diagnosed with PTSD.

At least seven months had passed between the time each man returned from combat to the U.S. and when they were assigned to USAREC.

• Regarding witness statements, Turner noted "inappropriate comments by leaders before investigations were done and before mine started." He added: "It may have been construed by recruiters as attempts to influence their statements."

Recruiters who felt their commanders may have been trying to influence their statements were given the opportunity to change their statements during Turner's investigation.

• There were no inherent problems with assigning soldiers to recruiting duty after they returned from combat, but the assignment process must be improved.

Soldiers now can get approval from the first lieutenant colonel in their chain of command to waive the 90-day stabilization period required of them after returning from a deployment. Sometimes, problems stemming from a soldier's experience in the war zone may not present themselves immediately, so the Army G-1 is reworking the waiver policy so that soldiers must now get approval from a general officer.

• Almost 50 percent of prospective recruiters were not fully vetted by their chain of command, as required by USAREC.

Soldiers who are nominated for recruiting duty must complete financial disclosure forms and statements declaring that they understand that recruiting is sensitive duty, they may be assigned to remote locations and they must be able to work independently.

They also must complete a mental health evaluation and be interviewed by their current battalion commander, command sergeant major and company commander, who must determine whether the soldier would be a successful recruiter. Input from this command team must include comments on the prospective recruiter's leadership ability and potential, physical fitness, character, integrity, ability to perform in stressful situations and any incidents of abuse. All negative evaluations must include a full explanation.

Turner said he found that almost half the soldiers who went on to be recruiters did not have a complete nomination packet, and that soldiers were not taking a standardized mental health evaluation.

To correct that, HRC on Jan. 13 sent a message reinforcing the need for a complete nomination packet and instituted a policy that prohibits soldiers from being assigned to recruiting battalions until their completed packet has been reviewed, Turner said.

Also, the Army surgeon general, G-1 and USAREC are creating a mental health evaluation form specific to recruiters, Turner said, and officials are working on a catalog to track the adequacy of medical and mental health care and the access soldiers have, regardless of where they are stationed, to that care.

Turner said "the Army is moving in a very quick way in taking concrete action" and to "improve the climate and leadership inside that battalion and other organizational, institutional factors that will improve recruiting operations."

Freakley said the Army is listening to Turner's advice and taking immediate and long-term steps to correct any problems.

"I want to ensure we have a climate where our recruiters know how important they are, are well led in a positive command climate, are well supported by the systems that we put in place to help them in their very important mission of recruiting an all-volunteer force … and that we learn and really grow from this experience," he said.

Recruiting is a very stressful job, said Bret Moore, a former captain and clinical psychologist who served twice in Iraq.

"I know that recruiting duty is one of the most stressful jobs, alongside drill sergeants," he said. "They have quotas to meet and there's a lot of pressure."

Turner, who briefed the four soldiers' families and Cornyn before releasing the findings of his investigation, said "all these [deaths] are tragic, but the one thing the Army does extremely well is learn from itself," he said.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, commanding general of USAREC, will send a team to Houston this summer to conduct a follow-on assessment of the command, Turner said.

There also is a move to balance suicide prevention training with resiliency training and coping skills, he said.

"[Instead] of trying to recognize that [a soldier] is exhibiting risk factors, this is more toward helping [a soldier] cope with the stresses in his life," he said.

Bostick is calling for a review of the current USAREC policies on duty hours for each of the five recruiting brigades and their 38 battalions.

For example, the Houston battalion's policy called for a maximum work day of 13 hours, and recruiters had to seek approval from their chain of command if they worked beyond that, Turner said. However, the 13-hour maximum was interpreted as the expected norm, and the policy could have been written more clearly, Turner said.

Bostick also is directing a review of how missions are assigned to recruiters, so what happened in Houston, where commanders were assigning a higher mission to recruiters, would not be repeated, Turner said.

What is critical in all of this is leadership, Turner said.

"It requires compassionate leaders caring for their soldiers, hitting that sweet spot between accomplishing the mission and caring for soldiers."

———

Staff writer gcavallaro@atpco.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Gina Cavallaro contributed to this report.

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