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A murder-suicide and the dark side of military recruiting

Female Marine recruits stand in line before getting lunch in the chow hall during boot camp on February 26, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Female Marine recruits stand in line before getting lunch in the chow hall during boot camp on February 26, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina.

To her parents, Michelle Miller was a devoted daughter, a fierce lacrosse player, and a driven high school senior who dreamed of becoming an Army psychologist.

To the Army recruiter who ended her life, she was just “Babyface.”

Staff Sgt. Adam Arndt, 31, had an "inappropriate sexual relationship" with Michelle Miller, 17, while he was supervising the young recruit’s preparations for basic training, according to a legal claim filed by Miller's parents. On April 8, both were found dead in his Germantown, Md., home: Arndt told Miller that he was feeling suicidal, then shot her when she came to his home, before killing himself.

Miller’s family has now filed a $10 million claim against the Army, alleging that Arndt’s superiors failed to supervise him adequately and stop the predatory behavior of a married man who had wed one of his former recruits just a year earlier.

“It’s not going to bring back my daughter’s life, but maybe we can save other children,” said her mother Pacita Miller, wearing Michelle’s jewelry and dog tags over her office clothes. “Who was trying to supervise this man?”

In the months since Michelle's death, Congress has becoming increasingly focused on fighting sexual assault in the military at large, with new protections passing the House this month and similar legislation currently before the Senate. But some legislators and advocates believe that Michelle’s story reveals a problem that’s remained on the sidelines: the need to prevent sexual misconduct and assault not only against enlisted soldiers, but also young recruits before they even ship out for basic training.

California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier is spearheading an effort to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of dismissal or discharge for recruiters who are sexually involved with their recruits--even if such activity is consensual.

Speier believes that military recruits are especially vulnerable given their youth and the relative autonomy that recruiters enjoy. Under federal law, recruiters must be allowed into most public schools. Any schools that receive federal funding under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act have to give military recruiters the same access to students that colleges and universities receive. “The scariest part is the opportunity it presents the sexual predator--it’s a highly desirable environment for them, lacking in supervision or accountability,” Speier said.

"Recruiters have to be salesmen by nature"

Michelle Miller isn’t the only victim who’s come to national attention in recent months. A Marine recruiter in North Carolina was charged in January with sexual battery and attempted rape of two female recruits. Weeks later, a Naval recruiter in Texas was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old enlistee after getting her drunk.

Military officials from the highest ranks on down have vowed to stamp out sexual misconduct, assault, and fraternization between recruiters and recruits. And tragedies like the Arndt-Miller case have prompted additional internal scrutiny, according to Defense spokesman Lt. Commander Nate Christensen. “Any time there is an incident of this magnitude it causes a pause and review of the process to try and determine how it could have been prevented.”

But they also stress that the number of incidents is statistically low. Since FY 2009, there have been 326 substantiated cases of sexually-related offenses against recruits, out of an estimated 9,500 recruiters, Pentagon officials say. During the same time period, the Air Force had a total of 36 cases of sexual misconduct by recruiters, and the Navy had 19 cases of sexual misconduct and 110 cases of fraternization (although not all the fraternization was sexually related).

Related: Senate set for battle over military sexual assault

The Pentagon requires all military services to report such incidents of sexual misconduct by recruiters, but it does not routinely publish the aggregate data and could not provide the numbers immediately when requested, according to Christensen.

There are strict rules guiding recruiters’ interaction with potential service members. The Army, for instance, prohibits recruiters from being alone with candidates of the opposite sex, requiring third person to be present as well, said Kathleen Welker, a spokeswoman for the Army Recruiting Command. Recruiters are also prohibited from sending personal texts or Facebook messages to potential or enlisted recruits.

Some officials also believe that recruits have safeguards built in because they are typically living at home with family in a familiar community, rather than on an isolated base. “They are surrounded by friends and family who are intimately acquainted with what they’re doing,” said Welker. “A lot of times these incidents are reported not by young women themselves, but by their family members.”

But many experts and victims’ advocates believe the official numbers don’t reflect what’s happening in recruiting offices across the country.

“If you have a new job and in the first week on the job, they ask, how do you think the process went when we hired you? You may be reluctant to speak up,” said Brenda Farrell, Director of Defense Capabilities and Management at the Government Accountability Office, author of a 2010 report on misconduct by military recruiters. “Or you can just walk away and think, ‘Well, this is how the military is.’”

Part of the problem is that military recruiting is so decentralized: There are thousands of recruiting stations dispersed across the country, with recruiters assigned to individual schools. And the work itself necessarily relies on developing a rapport with individual students. "Recruiters have to be salesmen by nature--slick-talking, used-car salesman type people," said "a former Army recruiting official, who declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the press. "Part of the problem we saw with people engaging in inappropriate behavior, is that you become slick-talking and confident, and you oversell yourself."

Family members search for answers

Michelle Miller’s family doubts that anyone would have found out about Arndt’s improprieties had the tragedy never happened. In retrospect, there were all sorts of hints at home: Michelle was especially “gushy” when she talked about Arndt, showing off photos of the dark-haired soldier on her phone, her father recalls. Michelle’s grandmother, Alice Miller, remembers when she told her about Arndt’s nickname for her, “Babyface.” “It’s not cute that he calls you that,” Alice told her granddaughter.

But they say never suspected anything at the time. “It’s not in my game plan,” Michelle told her grandmother. She was a good kid, they said, so why would they have reason to believe otherwise?  Had they known what was really happened, “we would have been the first to go into the recruiting station,” said her mother.

The Army should been more vigilant, the family says. Had Arndt’s supervisors bothered to check, they “would have easily learned of the improper relationship, found SSG Arndt’s improper Facebook account where he wrote sexually suggestive comments to potential recruits, learned that he acted inappropriately...and that he had posted poetry discussing suicide in the past,” the Millers’ claim reads.

In fact, Arndt was already on the Army’s radar screen: just weeks before his death and Michelle Miller’s, an internal inquiry was launched into his relationship with his wife, Kaitlyn, whom he also supervised when she was a recruit at the same station. (Both the Army and police investigations are ongoing.) “Why, if you are investigating how he got into a relationship with a recruit--why do you leave them with Michelle? Why not just take him out of his position?” asks her grandmother Alice Miller.

The Millers and their lawyer declined to comment on the sexual assault reforms before Congress, given their own legal proceedings. And it’s still unclear how much the legislation would affect sexual misconduct by recruiters with recruits, particularly if such activity is consensual.

The House version of the bill does include a mandatory minimum sentence of two years’ jail time, in addition to dismissal or dishonorable discharge, for service members convicted of sexual assault or rape.

The Senate Armed Service Committee also includes a provision that would prohibit all sexual contact between military instructors and their trainees, whether or not it's consensual. A proposal proposal extending the proposal to military recruiters and recruits has yet to be formally put forward, but Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin's office said that such a proposal "would undoubtedly receive serious consideration," according to spokeswoman Tara Andringa.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has tried to take its own measures to rein in misconduct: In early May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the military to reassess training and oversight of recruiters, which has prompted some divisions to begin re-screening their recruiters.

For the Millers, so far the only solace has been the legions of friends and neighbors who have come by to support the family and visit Michelle’s grave, where the grass has worn down from many visitors.

“She was a winner in everything and did all it took,” said her grandmother. “And she got suckered in.”