Sgt. 1st Class 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.
By MICHELLE ROBERTS
Associated Press Writer
HENDERSON, Texas — Sgt. 1st Class 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 by flashbacks and sleeplessness after his tour of battle in Iraq — went into his backyard shed, slid the chain lock in place, and hanged himself with a dog chain.
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 Sgt. Amanda Henderson, herself 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 Sen. 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 under way 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 Sgt. Larry Flores Jr., hanged himself in August at age 26; Sgt. Nils "Aron" Andersson, 25, shot himself to death 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 82nd 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 watching his back.
"He wasn't a complainer. He just said it really sucked," 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 U.S., 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.
She said her husband also found himself under crushing pressure from above. He and other recruiters in the battalion were required to account for every minute of every day in planners and logs, his widow said.
When Henderson took some time to recover from knee surgery, his bosses acted as if he was lazy and threatened to have him thrown out of recruiting and reassigned far from his wife, Amanda Henderson said.
He lived in constant fear of failing to sign up enough people, something that can result in an all-day audit by a recruiter's superiors and thwart a soldier's chances of a promotion, Amanda Henderson said.
As much as Henderson hated recruiting, he did the job well, his widow said. But Flores, who killed himself a few weeks before Henderson, "was getting chewed up one side and down the other" at work in the days before he died, Amanda Henderson said. Flores was her boss.
Smith, the Army spokesman, would not comment on Henderson's job performance. Asked about the demands put on recruiters by their superiors, he 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."
Some recruiters volunteer for the job, but most are assigned. They must have a recent evaluation showing no record of mental instability. But Amanda Henderson said her husband, like other combat veterans, rushed through his assessment, insisting he was fine.
Patrick Henderson had been out of Iraq a little less than a year when he began recruiting, and after several months on the job, his sleeplessness and flashbacks became evident, according to his wife. She said she stayed up one night watching him apparently flash between nightmares of combat and of illegally signing up a recruit.
He suffered a breakdown in the weeks before his suicide, his wife said. Because he was hundreds of miles from the nearest Army post, he went to a local counselor recommended by the military after an initial visit with an Army doctor. But the counselor had never worked with a combat veteran and couldn't decipher the military jargon in his medical records, Amanda Henderson said.
One morning in September, she woke up alone, panicked and went out to look for her husband. The chain was on the door to the shed, but she could see him inside. She pried the window open, and screamed. "He was gone," she said, her voice breaking.
"I don't want anybody to feel this pain that I have," she said, her eyes welling with tears. "It's too much for one person. They need help."
On the Net:
Army Recruiting Command: http:www.usarec.army.mil