The Army had ample evidence of low morale and poor leadership at the Houston Recruiting Battalion from internal investigations and inspections dating to 2006, roughly three years before a brigadier general’s report uncovered the same problems at the battalion after a string of suicides among recruiters there.
According to documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle through a Freedom of Information Act request, Brig. Gen. Frank D. Turner’s investigation confirmed what the Army already knew about the poor command climate at the Houston battalion.
Three of the four suicides examined in the general’s probe, which concluded in December, occurred in the last two years. The documents released to the Chronicle this week raise new questions about what the Army did to address concerns raised by recruiters in Houston prior to those deaths.
In an interview Friday, Turner said he found that after each of the previous investigations and inspections of the Houston battalion, steps were taken in most cases to “cut the cancer out” and improve working conditions, but he said more could have been done. “In hindsight, maybe different actions were warranted,” he said.
Turner said the Army has taken action after his report, including replacing leaders at battalion and brigade levels. Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, head of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Four recruiters assigned to the Houston battalion killed themselves between January 2005 and September 2008. All four soldiers had served in Iraq or Afghanistan before being reassigned to recruiting duty.
After the Chronicle’s inquiries into the suicides, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wrote to Army leaders in October to request an investigation.
The documents released to the newspaper include Turner’s final report, memos, e-mails, records of phone conversations and sworn statements related to the suicides.
In his report, Turner wrote that the Houston battalion has suffered from a poor command climate for years.
“The climate has been fostered by the leadership styles of several senior leaders, an unhealthy and singular focus on production at the expense of soldier and family considerations,” he wrote.
As early as March 2006, documents show, an inspection by the Army Inspector General’s office revealed “below average morale” and “micromanagement” at the Houston battalion.
A year later, an official with the Army’s Family Readiness Group visited the battalion in the wake of Sgt. Nils Aron Andersson’s suicide on March 6. The official found low morale in March 2007 and no improvement in August 2007.
In July 2008, Army investigators once again noted low morale in the unit, and reported that the battalion commander’s policy of 13-hour workdays was being abused by station commanders and company leadership.
Recruiters described a group known as the “Mafia,” a close-knit clique of Houston battalion commanders and permanent recruiters who operated outside the bounds of accepted policies and closed ranks to protect their own.
“Soldiers feared reprisals for making negative comments about company leadership teams,” Turner wrote.
Recruiters also felt that their long work hours prevented them from maintaining personal relationships, he wrote.
One recruiter said in a sworn statement that he didn’t know if he was going to be able to make his wedding even though he put in for the time off weeks in advance.
“I was told the day before my wedding that I would be off,” the recruiter wrote. “That is just an example of what we have to go through.”
On July 2, 2008, the battalion commander, whose name has been redacted from the documents, e-mailed commanders and first sergeants saying he’d been receiving too many calls about leaders violating policy and making recruiters work from 5:30 or 6:30 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night.
In the same e-mail, the commander stated he’d also been hearing complaints about abusive leadership in the battalion.
“I am also getting numerous calls on recruiters being called ‘dirtbags’ or ‘useless’ when they do not accomplish mission each month,” he wrote. This type of leadership must cease, the commander wrote.
Exactly one month later, Turner has confirmed, commanders inappropriately humiliated Staff Sgt. Larry G. Flores Jr. at “low-production counseling session” in which Flores and other recruiters who failed to meet monthly quotas had to defend their work ethics before superiors.
Flores’ friends and colleagues have said the 26-year-old station commander later told them the battalion’s command sergeant major had pressured him to admit he was a failure.
Turner said he believes the episode played a role in Flores’ suicide a week later.
Six weeks after Flores’ death, Sgt. 1st Class Patrick G. Henderson, 35, became the fourth Houston-based recruiter to commit suicide in less than four years.
Cornyn met with a dozen recruiters at their station in a River Oaks strip mall Friday morning. Afterward he said he hopes to follow up with congressional hearings.
Cornyn said he’s been briefed on Turner’s report, which was delivered to his office Friday morning.
“I would say to the extent that these problems have been identified before and not acted on appropriately, that’s certainly going to be part of the subject matter of the hearing the Senate Armed Services Committee is going to have in the very near future,” the senator said.
Veterans rights activist Paul Sullivan said he was deeply disturbed by the report, especially Turner’s finding that less than 60 percent of soldiers who return from deployment to a recruiting assignment have been fully vetted for psychological problems.
“The senior leaders at the Pentagon threw these Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to the wolves by ordering them to recruiting duty in a known toxic command environment without sufficient mental health screening,” said Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.