ONE ARMY, TWO FAILURES
Maltreated and hazed, one soldier is driven to take his own life
For Army Spc. Brushaun Anderson, there was no escaping his torment.
The senior noncommissioned officers who ruled his life at a remote patrol base in Iraq ordered him to wear a plastic trash bag because they said he was “dirty.”
They forced him to perform excessive physical exercises in his body armor over and over again.
They made him build a sandbag wall that served no military purpose.
Anderson seemed to take it all in stride. Until New Year’s Day 2010, when the once-eager 20-year-old soldier locked himself inside a portable toilet, picked up his M4 rifle, aimed the barrel at his forehead and pulled the trigger.
Anderson left behind a note lamenting his failures in the military, and some soldiers in his unit immediately said that Anderson had been driven to kill himself by leaders bent on humiliating him.
“No matter what Spc. Anderson did, no matter how big or small the incident was, his punishment was always extremely harsh, [and] a lot of the time demeaning,” one corporal later told Army investigators.
“Spc. Anderson’s punishments were not like anyone else’s in the platoon,” another corporal said. “Spc. Anderson was singled out.”
The U.S. Army is confronting an unprecedented suicide crisis. Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 1,100 soldiers have taken their own lives, with the numbers escalating each year for the last six years. Last year alone, 301 soldiers committed suicide — a new record.
Army officials often profess bafflement over the causes of the suicide epidemic, and they have spent more than $75 million on studies to try to understand the problem and reverse the devastating trend.
In Anderson’s case, at least, there was little mystery.
An Army investigation into Anderson’s unit following his suicide concluded that he had been hazed on multiple occasions and subjected to “cruel, abusive and oppressive treatment.”
Anderson’s battery commander, first sergeant, platoon sergeant and squad leader were found responsible for his maltreatment, according to documents obtained by Stars and Stripes.
But the Army didn’t hold them criminally culpable, and they weren’t made to leave the service.
Instead, all four superiors are moving ahead with their careers in leadership positions, entrusted with molding the Army’s next generation.
This is the story of one soldier’s humiliation — and the Army’s decision to avert its gaze. It is based on interviews with Anderson’s family and soldiers who witnessed his mistreatment and more than 500 pages of Army documents, including sworn statements from members of his unit and the conclusions of two Army investigators.
Brushaun Anderson had been raised by his great aunt in a modest community in Columbus, Ga., and had joined the military for the same reason many low-income recruits do: He saw it as his chance to get ahead.
He was an inexperienced soldier, with only two years in the Army, and on his first deployment. He dreamed of joining Special Forces, perhaps becoming a sniper. He could rattle off details of the Army’s weapons systems and obsessively cleaned his rifle. He also wanted to recruit, because he liked to teach and talk and “he loved what he was doing in the Army,” said his great aunt,Phyllis Eason.
In the beginning, Anderson saw success.
Capt. William Fisher, Battery A’s commander, praised him in Army documents, calling him “an impressive soldier with the highly sought after ‘self-starter’ quality,” and the battalion made him Soldier of the Quarter the month before they deployed.
Anderson was then given the honor of carrying the battalion’s colors at the pre-deployment ceremony at Fort Drum, N.Y., and promoted to specialist not long after.
Yet, in Iraq, Anderson found himself something of an outsider. He was an infantryman, not a field artillery soldier. He and a few other young infantrymen had been added to 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment for the deployment. He was also one of the few black soldiers in the battery.
Anderson received only mediocre performance reviews. He wasn’t meeting expectations in many regards, including his attitude.
He had lapses in judgment and a hygiene problem that hurt his reputation among some of Battery A’s leadership, even though one lieutenant said much of his behavior was typical of young soldiers. He thought Anderson simply needed more guidance from his direct leadership to help him develop as a soldier.
That wouldn’t happen at Patrol Base Babil.
The base in eastern Baghdad was remote and austere. There was no running water, no amenities like Internet access and, for a while, no portable toilets. Battery A’s 2nd Platoon and an attached squad lived sparsely in a tight square of tents next to Iraqi Security Forces.
Their battalion was based at the larger Joint Security Station Zafaraniyah about 20 minutes away, so the 40 or so soldiers at Babil were largely isolated from the rest of the unit.
The platoon’s top enlisted man, Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Devos, was granted wide leeway to run the show, and he reveled in the power, declaring himself “Supreme Allied Commander¬–Babil,” noncomissioned officers told Stars and Stripes.
He had the backing of Fisher, the battery’s commander, and then-Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Amaral, the battery’s first sergeant, both of whom encouraged a domineering spirit among the NCOs and emphasized punishment as a primary means of leadership, the NCOs said.
With this shared philosophy, the three leaders were close knit, the soldiers said. The leaders were eager for the deployment to turn into something big, itching for combat at a time when the mission in Iraq had shrunk to conducting courtesy patrols with the Iraqi Security Forces.
In December 2009, Devos got a new soldier to command when Anderson was moved from 1st Platoon to Babil.
Devos and the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Charles Bruckner, immediately pounced on Anderson’s minor mistakes.
Soldiers said once Bruckner and Devos identified Anderson as a soldier they could pick on, they never let up. They called him names and told him he wasn’t good enough for their platoon, that he was a “shit-bag soldier.”
They encouraged the other NCOs to find it funny and “release the dogs” on Anderson, a sergeant later wrote in his sworn statement.
Bruckner and Devos lacked even a “hint of moral capacity or professionalism,” another soldier wrote.
According to one sergeant, Devos was known for his “belittlement, cruelty and his verbal abuse.” Another soldier stated that Devos called Anderson stupid and sneered that the specialist must have cheated on his recruitment test because the Army doesn’t accept “retards.”
Anderson was also punished for “unreasonably long periods,” a soldier wrote, often for violations of rules that no one else had to abide by.
“Spc. Anderson was not a perfect soldier and he knew he made mistakes,” the soldier continued, “but no one deserved to get smoked like he did.”
For Christmas, the entire battery squeezed in at Babil to celebrate together.
Anderson was pulling guard duty in the predawn hours while most of the battery slept. As the sun began to rise, he lit a cigarette while sitting in the truck.
That was technically against the rules, but it was common practice at Babil.
Fisher asked him if he was smoking.
“Yeah, roger,” Anderson replied.
Fisher and Amaral weren’t pleased with the response. Both men demanded not just respect but total deference, soldiers said.
They had Bruckner and Anderson’s team leader counsel the specialist for disrespecting a senior officer and violating a lawful order for smoking in the truck. Both NCOs then recommended that Anderson get a company-grade Article 15, a nonjudicial punishment through the Uniformed Code of Military Justice.
Fisher and Amaral decided against that. Instead, Anderson was ordered to perform hours of corrective training.
Fisher, in fact, never approved an Article 15 during the entire deployment, setting him apart from the other battery commanders in the battalion. He and the rest of the battery and platoon leadership portrayed this as if they were doing the soldiers a favor.
It was better to keep these things in-house with corrective training than to go through the UCMJ, the rationale went. Some of the soldiers in the battery agreed.
Fisher told Stars and Stripes there was a simple explanation for it: Nothing rose to the level of an Article 15 while his battery was deployed.
The Army specifically states that corrective training isn’t supposed to be punitive. It’s intended to teach a soldier how to improve and to instill discipline, and it should directly relate to a soldier’s weakness.
But in Battery A, corrective training was a euphemism for whatever punishment the leadership chose that day.
For Anderson on Christmas, that meant he would get little rest.
After his night shift on guard, he had to pull two more hours of the duty. Then he was ordered to don full body armor for an hour of strenuous physical exercise with his rifle: sprints, push-ups, lunges while holding his rifle over his head and mountain climbers.
A lieutenant with the battery was on his way to start his shift serving the enlisted men their holiday meal when he saw Anderson sweating through the exercise.
He went to find Fisher to see whether the captain was aware of what was going on.
“I’m a firm believer in disciplining soldiers,” Fisher replied, according to the lieutenant’s sworn statement.
The lieutenant “questioned the weight of the punishment” and “made it known” that he “did not agree [Anderson] should have to suffer that long for such an easy correction, especially on Christmas morning.”
Fisher, who was old for a captain as a prior enlisted soldier, replied that Anderson’s punishment was his decision and it needed to be done.
The lieutenant was unimpressed.
“Personally, I believe there are more important things to focus on rather than demanding respect from subordinates,” the lieutenant wrote in his statement.
He walked away from his talk with Fisher concerned that Anderson was the only one being held accountable for smoking on guard duty while more concerning infractions by other soldiers, such as urinating near the sleeping tents, went ignored.
As part of the corrective training, Anderson’s squad was also roused out of bed and told that because Anderson had messed up, they all had to start filling sandbags for what was called the “Wall of Shame” or the “Wall of Discipline.”
The construction of the random wall, which had no legitimate military purpose, had become routine punishment for Anderson and the junior soldiers in his squad. There was even a wooden sign reading “Wall of Discipline.” One private first class, though, said it was just a joke and no one took it too seriously.
Anderson was instructed to join his squad once he was done with his hour of physical training.
While the young soldiers labored on the wall with “a clearly broken spirit,” one sergeant said, Fisher and Amaral stood by laughing.
Devos joked that the soldiers looked like refugees.
Deriding mental help
Anderson started spending more time by himself. At Babil, he often paced around the small patrol base or stood alone by the campfire.
A private first class asked him whether he was OK one night, and Anderson said he just wanted to be alone to think.
Friends said Anderson, the happy guy who made jokes and was always willing to help out, seemed to shrug off his treatment at the hands of Bruckner and Devos.
“If he was humiliated he never really showed it,” a specialist in the platoon said in a sworn statement, “and if it bothered him he never said it did.”
Some of the soldiers in the battery said Anderson brought things on himself by being lazy and repeatedly making stupid mistakes. The trouble wasn’t the platoon or battery leadership, a few said in their sworn statements, it was his lack of discipline.
One soldier wrote: “He wasn’t singled out. He did dumb [stuff] and got in trouble for it.”
Two days after Christmas, when most of the battery had been up for at least 36 hours, Anderson failed a room inspection at Zafaraniyah. The platoon rotated through that base to get showers and a break from Babil.
Bruckner told him his room was a “disgrace” with “trash on the floor, leftover meals in trays, flies, empty soda cans, dirty laundry and military equipment strewn all over the floor,” according to a formal counseling statement that Bruckner prepared. “Once again this shows the unit you have no discipline.”
Amaral was livid. He started throwing Anderson’s stuff around in his room, saying, “I’ll show you NCOs how to toss a room,” according to one sergeant.
The NCOs had Anderson put on his body armor and remove everything from his room, wipe down the walls and floor and then move everything back in.
Then Bruckner, who soldiers said tried hard to impress Devos, told Anderson to pack up his stuff because he was being exiled back to the spartan Babil permanently. That was a threat Devos often held over the heads of soldiers, one sergeant said.
One of Anderson’s friends, another specialist, saw him afterward and asked whether he planned on doing anything stupid.
“No, I’m fine,” Anderson told him. “I just need to settle down and slow down.”
Back at Babil, the platoon’s leaders didn’t relent.
They yelled at Anderson for not keeping up with proper hygiene. They told him he smelled bad and called him dirty, and then they forced him to wear a garbage bag at all times, according to sworn statements.
That type of demeaning treatment of soldiers wasn’t new for Devos, and it wasn’t unknown to the Army.
The spring before the unit deployed, Devos was admonished by a military judge. During a court-martial of one of Devos’ soldiers, it came to light that Devos had called out the accused in formation, made threatening remarks and generally acted in a “manner designed to humiliate, punish and degrade” the soldier, the judge said.
He was so “gravely concerned” about Devos’ “inappropriate and unprofessional” behavior that his actions ended up being a “significant mitigating factor” in sentencing the soldier.
Less than a year later, Devos — or “Big Time” as soldiers said he liked to call himself — was back at it in Iraq.
He had the encouragement of Amaral, a close friend.
To Amaral, everything was a game, a sergeant who served with Anderson told Stars and Stripes.
He molded the battery’s NCOs into the kind of leaders who hound junior enlisted soldiers, lecturing them that “soldiers have no rights” and if “you aren’t yelling at soldiers, you aren’t doing your job,” several soldiers said.
The first sergeant often boasted of how he took his personal frustrations out on soldiers by yelling at them or making fun of them. Amaral called the practice “Joe Time,” referencing the common nickname for soldiers.
Neither he nor Devos had much tolerance for the Army’s new spotlight on soldier care and they mocked the emphasis of mental health. In fact, Devos subjected his soldiers to exactly the kind of stigma the Army claims it’s trying to eliminate from the ranks.
If a soldier went to the “wizard,” as Devos derisively termed mental health counselors, that soldier was considered weak, the sergeant told Stars and Stripes.
“He said it so frequently that everyone knew,” the sergeant continued, asserting that promotions were also withheld for anyone who sought mental health care.
Devos often turned suicide into a punch line. Before working his soldiers hard, for example, he’d tell them they’d better get their ACE cards ready, referring to the laminated pocket guide for suicide intervention that soldiers carry.
When Babil got three portable toilets, the sergeant told Stars and Stripes, Devos joked that no soldier should use one as place to kill himself because he didn’t want to have to clean up the mess.
Tired and defeated
On Jan. 1, 2010, soldiers at Babil didn’t get out of bed until around 1 p.m. They had spent the night before out on patrol and arrived back early in the morning.
Anderson had fallen asleep in the turret during the mission — a serious violation — and so would spend the first day of the new year working on the “Wall of Discipline.”
Before he could get started, Anderson was caught for another infraction, this time for uniform standards. He was wearing an unauthorized pair of eyewear with headphones.
Those type of standards were mostly nonexistent at Babil, and it was the kind of infraction that was commonly ignored, several soldiers said.
But Anderson was nabbed for the violation and promptly made to do mountain climbers in full body armor with his rifle. Amaral put an end to the exercise around 10 minutes later.
Soon after, wearing a trash bag, Anderson started filling sandbags for the “Wall of Discipline.” Soldiers described him as looking tired and defeated.
Anderson headed to the bathroom and, on his way, he ran into a friend, a private first class who asked him what he was doing.
“Taking a break,” he said, before going into the middle of three portable toilets.
About 15 minutes later, a gunshot brought the soldiers running to the latrines.
The first soldier there knocked and called out “Hello?” before yanking the door open. He saw an M4 rifle in a pool of blood and Anderson slumped over on the seat.
In his journal by his bunk, Anderson had written what appeared to be a suicide note.
“I really don’t know what to say in a note like this. I just don’t feel good about what I’ve accomplished in my life. I feel like a faliuer (sic). I feel like I’ve failed. And theirs (sic) no hope of improving. I’ve been a couple of places in the Army and it’s all been pretty much the same.”
'It was preventable'
Immediately after Anderson’s suicide, Bruckner told his soldiers to quickly empty the sandbags and take down the “Wall of Discipline,” three different sergeants said. Amaral also wanted the wall removed.
Devos later convened a meeting with all the NCOs. He told them there was a “circle of trust” and that they had to know who was on the inside and who was on the outside, a sergeant wrote. Devos tried to convince the soldiers that the questions being asked about Anderson’s death were an affront to the entire platoon.
Then a few days later, Bruckner held another meeting with the same NCOs, imploring them to stick together and protect Devos, to have his back.
“I believe he told us NCOs that … because they knew they were wrong in what happened,” a corporal wrote in a sworn statement.
The soldiers calling attention to how Anderson had been treated before his suicide were told to pipe down by battery and battalion leadership. At one point, some of the NCOs tried to convince a few soldiers that Anderson killed himself because he was gay, a sergeant told Stars and Stripes.
But the Army’s subsequent investigation into Anderson’s suicide revealed the battery’s troublesome corrective training practices, and some soldiers told the investigator that they thought the battery’s leadership played a role in Anderson’s death.
“I knew him very well, and I believe his suicide was in direct relation with how he was being treated and made an example out of in front of all his peers and fellow soldiers,” Anderson’s former team leader from 1st Platoon said.
A sergeant wrote: “It was preventable. The battery leadership allowed unorthodox and mean spirited punishment to take place. This was a direct result of how [Amaral and Fisher] ran the battery.”
Another soldier wrote: “I believe the constant pressure from his chain of command pushed him over the edge.”
Those concerns set off a larger investigation a few months later into the battalion’s use of corrective training and improper punishment.
In the end, Anderson’s leaders escaped any serious consequences.
The captain who conducted the first investigation found that the battery’s corrective training was “imposed in an oppressive manner to evade procedural safeguards applying to imposing non-judicial punishment.” He blamed the command climate set by Fisher and Amaral, which “resonated throughout the battery.”
In the six-week follow-up investigation, a colonel concluded that soldiers in Battery A, and Anderson in particular, “were treated in a cruel, abusive, oppressive and harmful manner.”
Devos “was directly responsible for soldiers’ well-being and duty bound to foster a healthy environment to maximize their potential,” the colonel wrote. Instead, Devos created an “environment of maltreatment and abuse when he allowed unauthorized punitive actions to be imposed.”
As battery commander, Fisher’s actions “jeopardized the well-being of all his soldiers.” He fostered “unacceptable conditions affecting good order and discipline of his unit” and “instead of intervening and taking preventative measures, he stood idle.”
As did Amaral, according to the investigating colonel.
The colonel recommended that they all get General Officer Memorandums of Reprimand, a form of administrative action that would likely keep them from being promoted to the next rank.
He also recommended Bruckner and Devos be relieved of duty for cause, and they were reassigned to different positions within the battalion while the unit was still deployed to Iraq.
But the memos of reprimand didn’t stick for Fisher and Amaral.
Although the reprimand was ordered by Maj. Gen. Terry Wolff, the battalion commander worked to get the men off the hook.
Lt. Col. Heyward Hutson said he went to bat for Fisher and Amaral because he “didn’t think they were culpable enough to end their careers over it.”
The memos of reprimand were downgraded to more minor letters of concern and weren’t filed in their permanent records. Since they have each moved on to new assignments, their records are unblemished, and both can move up the chain of command without anyone knowing about their misconduct.
Wolff declined to comment on why the reductions were made to Fisher’s and Amaral’s punishments. Fisher had written Wolff a letter rebutting the conclusions of the colonel’s investigation.
In an interview with Stars and Stripes, Fisher said that Anderson’s suicide greatly affected the entire battery, and as a leader he considered it a failure.
“I take full responsibility,” he said. “I’ll live with this the rest of my life.”
However, Fisher said that incidents “were blown out of proportion,” and from what he understood from his soldiers, the “climate of the battery was exceptional and things were going really well.”
In sworn statements, some soldiers backed this up, either praising Fisher’s command or expressing neutral feelings.
Fisher said he thought a few soldiers who didn’t reflect the majority and had a grudge about other issues used the investigation to voice their displeasure, driving the investigation to go further than it needed to go.
“The picture that was painted in the findings wasn’t accurate,” he said.
Amaral wrote a letter to the brigade’s commander, saying the unit did not have “an alarming issue with corrective training.” The problem was junior leaders and their lack of training in how to develop soldiers, he wrote.
Devos is appealing his memorandum of reprimand with the full support of Hutson, who wrote a letter on his behalf recommending the appeal.
Even if the appeal is denied, Devos is high enough up the chain of command to stay in the service without being promoted. So is Bruckner. As a result, the reprimands won’t affect their ability to serve 20 years and retire with full benefits.
Amaral, Devos and Bruckner did not respond to requests from Stars and Stripes for comment.
U.S. Army officials declined to comment, including Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff and the man tasked with overseeing the Army’s response to the suicide problem.
But attending to the emotional needs of soldiers has long been a declared priority for Chiarelli.
“This generation needs caring and involved leaders,” Chiarelli told students at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., last October. “[Soldiers] are stressed and tired after nine years of war.”
Army spokesman Col. Thomas Collins referred questions about the case back to the chain of command of Anderson’s unit.
“What I can say definitively is that we have a system of justice in which commanders weigh the facts and make determinations on what is appropriate punishment,” Collins said.
Anderson’s case stands in stark contrast to how the Army dealt with a similar incident in Iraq the year before. In 2009, a private killed himself in a portable toilet and the Army charged two noncommissioned officers with cruelty and maltreatment for subjecting the soldier to ridicule and excessive physical training. They both served a few months in the brig and were reduced in rank.
Yet, a year and half after Anderson’s death, all four of the leaders called out in the investigation maintain their leadership positions within the Army:
Bruckner is back in the position of platoon sergeant with the same battery.
Devos, with 2nd Battalion, 307th Field Artillery Regiment, is training National Guard and Reserve soldiers at Camp Atterbury in Indiana before they deploy.
Amaral was promoted and is a battery first sergeant at Fort Carson, Colo., with 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery.
Fisher is mentoring U.S. troops and American allies, ensuring they follow Army doctrine as they train for combat at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany.
“The Army has spoken on this and said it’s acceptable,” the sergeant who had served with Anderson told Stars and Stripes. “That’s the big crime.”