SAN ANTONIO – The Army has agreed to investigate a disproportionate cluster of suicides among recruiters in an East Texas battalion, as well as allegations by other soldiers and family members that they were pressured to cover up serious problems in the battalion, Army Secretary Pete Geren said.
Seventeen Army recruiters have committed suicide nationwide since 2001, but four of them were from the Houston Recruiting Battalion, which recruits soldiers from East Texas. A fifth Houston-area soldier killed himself, but he was assigned to the Army's Future Soldier Training Program.
There are 38 recruiting battalions nationwide with 8,400 recruiters.
The Army's suicide rate has been climbing as the war in Iraq has forced multiple and longer deployments.
Last year, the Army's suicide rate was 18.1 per 100,000, the highest since the service started keeping records in 1980. That's still lower than the U.S. civilian rate of 19.5 per 100,000.
The investigation was sought by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who heard from soldiers and family members after the Houston Chronicle reported the cluster of suicides earlier this year.
Brig. Gen. Frank Turner has been assigned to investigate the recruiter suicides and the cover-up allegations, Geren told Cornyn in a letter dated Monday.
A chaplain, psychologist and equal employment officer talked to members of the Houston battalion in mid-October, said Douglas Smith, spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. Their report is not yet complete, but Smith said Friday he doesn't know of any obstruction.
Cornyn noted in an interview Friday that the all-volunteer service is under heavy pressure to sign recruits and retain soldiers during two wars.
Many recruiters are soldiers with recent combat experience who may be suffering from stress and now must persuade high school students and other young people to join an Army at war.
The hours can be long and many work in offices in shopping malls or elsewhere far from Army posts. Cornyn said those conditions isolate soldiers, particularly ones who have recently returned from combat, and may make many of the Army's support services out of reach.
Cornyn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, complained to Geren in a letter that current recruiters and family members felt some battalion leaders were "working to cover up serious problems that evidence a toxic command climate and poor unit morale."
Cornyn told The Associated Press on Friday that he's concerned about the Houston battalion but noted "it also has implications militarywide."
Cornyn has questioned the policy that allows recruiting commanders protected from possible deployment to manage hardened combat veterans. While some permanent recruiters have been deployed, others are in non-deployable positions.
Geren acknowledged in a letter dated Nov. 3 that some recruiting commanders don't have combat experience, but he said Army officials don't believe the lack of experience makes them ill-equipped to mentor and supervise combat veterans assigned to the recruiting command.
Geren said he directed Army officials to ensure recruiters have full access to the Army's mental health services.
Cornyn had hoped for an independent investigation rather than one directed by the Army, but he said he is willing to give commanders a chance to handle it themselves.
"I'm hopeful they'll take the matter seriously," he said. "We'll see whether the product is something that's credible and demonstrates that they've taken it seriously."
The senator said he also plans to seek a Senate hearing on the issue.