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The Houston Chronicle
By LINDSAY WISE, firstname.lastname@example.org
Oct. 4, 2008, 1:14AM
Iraq vet asks Army to evaluate high-stress duty
Two weeks ago today, Sgt. First Class Patrick Henderson walked into a shed behind his house, locked the door and hanged himself from a rafter.
The 35-year-old soldier was the fifth Houston-based Army recruiter to commit suicide in seven years.
Now his wife, also a recruiter, says she hopes his death will lead to an overhaul of the Army’s high-stress recruiting practices.
“My husband was an Iraq veteran, a strong, proud man,” Staff Sgt. Amanda Henderson, 32, said this week in her first public statements since her husband’s death. “He loved and served his country and went above and beyond the call of duty, and I don’t want others to go through this.”
Patrick Henderson’s suicide came just six weeks after another recruiter, Staff Sgt. Larry Flores Jr., 26, hanged himself in his garage in Palestine Aug. 9. Both men belonged to the Houston Recruiting Battalion’s Tyler Company and both were combat veterans.
Flores, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the station commander in Nacogdoches, where Amanda Henderson worked. Her husband was assigned to Longview station.
Douglas Smith, spokesman for U.S. Army Recruiting Command, declined to comment for this article.
In a statement last week, USAREC announced it will establish a Suicide Prevention Board and send a team, including a psychologist and chaplain, to the Houston battalion later this month.
Army officials acknowledge recruiting is one of the toughest jobs in the military, especially at a time when the U.S. is fighting two wars.
Houston battalion recruiters who spoke to the Chronicle said they work 12- to 14-hour days, six or seven days a week. If they don’t fill monthly quotas, they’re criticized as failures, punished with even longer hours and threatened with losing rank or receiving poor evaluations, they said.
“Some people are really good at recruiting, and I think that’s good for them,” said Amanda Henderson, who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. “But it’s not fair to these veterans who are coming back and being treated like crap just because they can’t meet the quota.”
She’d like to see recruiters treated with more compassion and given better access to mental health care. The Army should also give soldiers more time between combat deployments and recruiting assignments so they have time to re- adjust to society, she said.
‘We are humans, too’
“We’re recruiters and we have a job to do, and I understand that and I understand that these hours are long, but we are humans, too, and we have families,” she said.
The couple met a year ago in “recruiter school” at Fort Jackson, S.C.
“He was always cracking jokes, he was always laughing, and I think what attracted me most about him was that even though he was the class clown, he was strong,” Amanda said.
Patrick had already served three years as a recruiter with the Houston battalion before deploying to Iraq in November 2005.
He badly injured his knee in an explosion, but still went on missions with a leg brace.
Less than a year after returning home in November 2006, he was reassigned to the Houston Recruiting Battalion again.
“Even though he hated recruiting he knew he was a soldier and he had to do his job to the best of his ability,” his wife said.
The upbeat soldier was a hard worker who helped keep his fellow recruiters motivated, said Staff Sgt. Joe Quinters, who supervised Patrick as a station commander in Longview.
“A lesser person would’ve quit, but he was always out in the schools, always out in the community,” he said. “He was very well-respected and liked, and every person he put in (the Army) had nothing but good things to say about him.”
Stress on couple
Amanda and Patrick married Jan. 7. To celebrate, they tattooed their initials linked by tiny hearts on their ring fingers.
But Amanda soon talked to her husband more on the phone than she saw him. Eating meals together was a luxury. They got home so late that they only had enough energy to collapse into bed.
When Flores killed himself in August, the stress on their marriage and professional lives doubled, she said.
“I know after Sgt. Flores’ death, Patrick didn’t seem like himself,” Amanda said. “He took it very badly because he was trying to hold me up. I was having a hard time with it, and I was crying a lot.”
Two weeks after Flores’ suicide, Patrick threatened to kill himself, screaming that he couldn’t take it anymore. Amanda called a friend who came over and talked to Patrick until he calmed down and lay down on the couch.
“I watched him all night long because he slept with his eyes open,” Amanda said. “It was the freakiest thing.”
The next morning, Patrick was delirious. “He didn’t know where he was,” Amanda said. “He went from thinking he was recruiting to thinking he was in Iraq.”
Patrick spent four days in a Longview hospital before being transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for evaluation, Amanda said. Doctors prescribed medication for anxiety, depression and insomnia and told him he needed outpatient therapy and marriage counseling to deal with the stress, she said. Patrick was taken off recruiting duty and told to report to Company headquarters in Tyler to await reassignment.
“He just kept telling me that he just got to a breaking point and it’s over and he wants to go on,” Amanda said.
‘I think he just snapped’
On Sept. 19, Patrick met Amanda at a bar in Nacogdoches. Amanda later told police they’d argued and she’d suggested maybe they should separate for a while. But by the time Patrick arrived at the bar, they’d made up, she said. “He came up to me and gave me a big hug, and everything was OK,” Amanda said. She went to bed thinking the drama was over.
Patrick was found dead the next morning. “I think he just snapped,” his wife said.
He leaves behind three children from a previous marriage and a stepson with Amanda.
Now she’s on leave, trying to wrap her mind around what happened.
“I liked recruiting in a way because the Army puts a roof over my head,” Amanda said. “I just graduated from college with the help of the Army. I’ve gotten to see the world because of the Army. And I don’t mind talking to people about the Army. But I can’t force you to do something because I like it.”
Her husband, a proud infantryman, felt the same way, she said.
“Patrick always used to say this: ‘My career is based on the whims of a 17-year-old kid.’ And I can still hear him saying that in my head.”
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle