When Army Staff Sergeant Amanda Henderson ran into Staff Sergeant Larry Flores in their Texas recruiting station last August, she was shocked by the dark circles under his eyes and his ragged appearance. "Are you O.K.?" she asked the normally squared-away soldier. "Sergeant Henderson, I am just really tired," he replied. "I had such a bad, long week, it was ridiculous." The previous Saturday, Flores' commanders had berated him for poor performance. He had worked every day since from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., trying to persuade the youth of Nacogdoches to wear Army green. "But I'm O.K.," he told her.
No, he wasn't. Later that night, Flores hanged himself in his garage with an extension cord. Henderson and her husband Patrick, both Army recruiters, were stunned. "I'll never forget sitting there at Sergeant Flores' memorial service with my husband and seeing his wife crying," Amanda recalls. "I remember looking over at Patrick and going, 'Why did he do this to her? Why did he do this to his children?' " Patrick didn't say anything, and Amanda now says Flores' suicide "triggered" something in her husband. Six weeks later, Patrick hanged himself with a dog chain in their backyard shed. (See pictures of suicide in recruiters' ranks.)
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now the longest waged by an all-volunteer force in U.S. history. Even as soldiers rotate back into the field for multiple and extended tours, the Army requires a constant supply of new recruits. But the patriotic fervor that led so many to sign up after 9/11 is now eight years past. That leaves recruiters with perhaps the toughest, if not the most dangerous, job in the Army. Last year alone, the number of recruiters who killed themselves was triple the overall Army rate. Like posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, recruiter suicides are a hidden cost of the nation's wars.
The Wartime Challenge
Behind the neat desks and patriotic posters in 1,650 Army recruiting stations on Main Streets and in strip malls is a work environment as stressful in its own way as combat. The hours are long, time off is rare, and the demand to sign up at least two recruits a month is unrelenting. Soldiers who have returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan now constitute 73% of recruiters, up from 38% in 2005. And for many of them, the pressure is just too much. "These kids are coming back from Iraq with problems," says a former Army officer who recently worked in the Houston Recruiting Battalion.
The responsibility for providing troop replacements falls to the senior noncommissioned officers who have chosen to make recruiting their career in the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC). They in turn put pressure on their local recruiters to "make mission" and generate the recruits sometimes by any means necessary. Lawrence Kagawa retired last July after more than 20 years in uniform; he spent the latter half as a highly decorated recruiter, and his tenure included a stint in the Houston battalion from 2002 to 2005. "There's one set of values for the Army, and when you go to Recruiting Command, you're basically forced to do things outside of what would normally be considered to be moral or ethical," he says.
Because station commanders and their bosses are rated on how well their subordinates recruit, there is a strong incentive to cut corners to bring in enlistees. If recruiters can't make mission legitimately, their superiors will tell them to push the envelope. "You'll be told to call Johnny or Susan and tell them to lie and say they've never had asthma like they told you, that they don't have a juvenile criminal history," Kagawa says. "That recruiter is going to bend the rules and get the lies told and process the fraudulent paperwork." And if the recruiter refuses? The commander, says Kagawa, is "going to tell you point-blank that 'we have a loyalty issue here, and if I give you a "no" for loyalty on your annual report, your career is over.' "
It's not surprising, then, that some recruiters ignore red flags to enlist marginal candidates. "I've seen [recruiters] make kids drink gallons of water trying to flush marijuana out of their system before they take their physicals," one Houston recruiter says privately. "I've seen them forge signatures." Sign up a pair of enlistees in a month and a recruiter is hailed; sign up none and he can be ordered to monthly Saturday sessions, where he is verbally pounded for his failure.