Casualties of War

It had all the makings of a murder-mystery. Maybe a bad NCIS episode. Five dead Army recruiters — all apparent suicides. But this was Houston, where folks looked kindly upon the local recruiters and service in the Army. No Code Pink Kiss-ins to worry about. No perennial parade of protesters outside their doors like their brothers and sisters in Berkeley, Calif., had to endure.

Hope as one may, this is not a made-for-TV script exploiting Army Strong. The Army’s Houston Recruiting Battalion has lost five recruiters to suicide — two just since August. Now a Texas senator is calling for an independent inquiry into the matter. It is alleged that earlier investigations into the suicides and the command climate have been tampered with.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) says he has received complaints of “toxic leadership” and “low morale,” which given the pressures of the job, might not be surprising. There also have been allegations of “ ‘improper and unprofessional’ practices such as mass punishment, organized hazing.” Recruiters who do not make mission have been threatened with discharge. (This is a surprise?)

The Houston Chronicle has followed the story closely for some time and has detailed the lives and untimely deaths of some of the soldiers. As would be expected, it seems at least some of the soldiers were depressed, and in some cases, the command worked to get the soldiers help. In at least one case, the command removed firearms from a soldier’s residence, though the soldier shot himself later anyway. The two most recent soldiers hung themselves.

These soldiers endured workdays were 12-14 hours, six-seven days a week and threats of poor evaluations or being tossed from the Army for failing to make the two-contract monthly mission. It might not be right, but this also describes life for many recruiters in challenging markets and times, like, the late 1980s to the early 1990s. How about holding a DUI over an officer’s head to ensure he performed? Desperate times can breed desperate measures. The delta here might be the war-weary going from the streets of Ramadi, Iraq, to the streets of Houston, some battling PTSD. But five suicides? Trend? Aberration? Perfect storm?

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