Army Recruiter Stress Prompts Drug Abuse
December 24, 2008
While the Army investigates a spate of suicides amongst Soldiers assigned to the Houston Recruiting Battalion, some recruiters working in neighboring Oklahoma say they’re seeing the same kinds of stresses plaguing their colleagues, prompting fears of drug abuse and potential suicide there.
Two of the recruiters — based on their own information and observation — estimate that at least 30 percent of the roughly 200 recruiters in the Oklahoma City battalion are on anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications. Some recruiters are taking drugs to try and cope, one recruiter claims, including one NCO who smokes marijuana “to calm down.”
A third recruiter would not offer an estimate of how many in the Oklahoma City Battalion are on prescribed medications, but said he knows “a lot of guys are taking anti-anxiety” meds –– in some cases because being on the medication is a way of keeping their supervisors “off their backs.” An Army spokesman said Dec. 24 that the Army probably does not track the number of Soldiers on prescription medications.
The three — two of whom are still recruiters and another who recently finished his three-year assignment — spoke to Military.com on condition they not be identified.
“They work you until your mentally fatigued, they threaten your career over and over” when you fail to meet your quota, said one staff sergeant who recently concluded his recruiting tour.
While the Army met its recruiting goals for 2008, the job of replenishing the ranks is getting tougher since the service is looking to grow by an additional 74,000 Soldiers over the next several years.
The challenges are serious. Those who typically have influence over a young person’s decision to enlist – such as parents and teachers – have grown increasingly reluctant to endorse that move, experts say.
And the candidate pool itself already is limited, the Army admits. Fewer than three in 10 of the country’s 17- to 24-year-olds — the prime age of candidates — are fully qualified, the Army said in October. The majority do not meet the Army’s standards for health, education or character unless they are given a waiver.
Even with the country in recession and civilian unemployment up — factors that usually work in recruiters’ favor — recruiters still have to work hard to meet their goals.
But that’s why the Army sends the best to help fill its ranks.
Recruiters are typically non-commissioned officers who have already committed to an Army career. And these days most have at least one combat tour in Iraq or Afghanistan under their belt.
But when they return, Soldiers assigned to recruiting duty face a different kind of stress that many find harder to cope with then combat.
“I don’t condone people committing suicide, but sometimes I can understand how they’re driven to it,” one recruiter said.
The recruiters who spoke to Military.com all described an assignment that was about one thing: meeting numbers, regardless of the schedule it demanded or the impact on themselves and their families. A workday might start at 5am and end at 10pm — sometimes even later.
Time and contacts — or lack of them — had to be accounted for. You are expected to make so many appointments for so many cold calls, the NCOs said, regardless of how many potential candidates you manage to reach on the phone or how many are interested in talking about signing up, they said.
“We’re told we have to be on the phones for at least 30 hours a week, no matter how well or poor that method of prospecting [for candidates] is,” said another NCO, one who has more than 12 years in service. “That’s the minimum — they call it a standard. But it’s impossible to place a standard on something when it’s measured by a third party’s free will.”
And it’s not only the numbers that grind on the recruiters, said one of the three; it’s being forced to play loose with the rules in order to meet your contract quota. At times you know a candidate is not ready for the Army, he said, and you can see the parents are concerned.
“But I’m two behind on mission and have to get them in,” he said.
Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command, said the command takes recruiter stress very seriously.
“There are a lot of programs in place to make sure everyone in the command knows what kind of assistance is available,” he told Military.com Dec. 23. “There’s ongoing training given to everyone about what to look for in themselves and fellow workers to see if there is a problem.”
Lawrence Korb, a military analyst with the Center for American Progress in Washington, and a former assistant secretary of defense with expertise in manpower issues, said Army recruiters are under great strain because the pool of candidates continues to shrink while recruiting goals increase.
If the estimates offered by recruiters from the Oklahoma Battalion on the number of their peers taking depression or anxiety meds are accurate, “that’s a little less than one out of three,” Korb said.
“It’s got to be tough on them because these are men, mostly, and women who excelled on the battlefield, and now they can find their careers on hold or going backwards if they don’t meet their recruiting goals,” Korb said.
They would find it frustrating because it’s not their fault that recruiting has gotten tougher.
“If the country turns against a war it becomes harder for them to recruit because … mothers, fathers, teachers, coaches and ministers say don’t join. No matter how hard they work, if a mom or dad says we don’t want you to join, that kids not going to join. You can’t blame the recruiter [for the falling numbers].”
Army spokesman Doug Smith said the command is unable to say why there has been a cluster of suicides in the nearby Houston Recruiting Battalion, but the Army is investigating.
Since 2003, according to the Associated Press, 15 Army recruiters have committed suicide. But in the past three years alone, four of the suicides have been from the Houston Battalion. They have been identified as Staff Sgt. Larry Flores Jr., 26, who hanged himself in August; Sgt. Nils “Aron” Andersson, 25, who shot himself to death in March 2007; Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Henderson, 35, who hanged himself last month; and a captain assigned to battalion headquarters, who killed himself in 2005.
The Army has not provided details on the officer’s suicide, according to the AP.