Staff Sgt. Daren Stewart remembers driving down a rural road in Arkansas and thinking how easy it would be to jerk the wheel and flip his car into a ditch.
The 27-year-old Iraq war veteran says he wasn’t suicidal. He just figured that injuring himself was the only way he could get any time off from his job as an Army recruiter.
“I would rather spend three years straight in Iraq, without coming home, without a break, than ever be a recruiter again,” said Stewart, who recruited in Hot Springs, Ark., from 2005 to 2008.
Five-hundred miles away in Houston, the suicides of four Army recruiters from a single battalion have focused lawmakers and veterans advocates on the enormous stress endured by soldiers tasked with refilling the ranks of the all-volunteer military during wartime.
In response to the deaths, the Army will suspend all recruiting nationwide Friday to focus on leadership training, suicide prevention and the health of its 8,900 recruiters. The Army Inspector General also is examining working conditions throughout U.S. Army Recruiting Command.
In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, current and former recruiters and their relatives from 10 of the Army’s 38 recruiting battalions detailed their own experiences in a job long considered one of the military’s toughest. They said the exhausting hours, degrading treatment and toxic command climate reported in Houston were not isolated incidents, but deep-rooted, widespread problems that have affected recruiters across the country for years.
Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley of U.S. Army Accessions Command said soldiers have a right to complain, but in visits to recruiting stations, he has encountered a very positive, sensitive command climate.
“I’m not going to ask for anecdotal information because I’ve been in the Army 33 years and if I walk into a unit and ask what is wrong, I get an earful, but when I ask what is good, I get balance,” said Freakley, whose command oversees USAREC.
At the strip mall in Hot Springs where Daren Stewart worked, however, most of the recruiters were on antidepressants or antianxiety medication.
They worked 12- to 14-hour shifts, six or seven days a week, Stewart said. Commanders cursed, humiliated and screamed at soldiers who fell short of monthly quotas, threatening to ruin their careers or withhold time off with loved ones, he said.