He knew it wouldn’t be an easy story, but the tantalizing tangle of elements — confounding Army policy and soldiers profoundly broken by post-traumatic stress disorder, the senseless violence and mysterious deaths — made Gazette reporter Dave Philipps curious.
“It was about as far from my beat as you can get,” says Philipps, whose first book, “Lethal Warriors,” will be released Tuesday. “My beat is skiing and mountain biking. … I knew nothing about the military. All I knew was G.I. Joe.”
In fact, the Gazette outdoors reporter quickly realized he was in over his head.
Philipps had no experience with military reporting and didn’t even understand the jargon. The Army resisted handing over public information. Many of the stories that emerged were random and violent. And then there was the formidable task of delving into the damaged minds of a handful of members of the 500-soldier unit within a brigade called the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, which nicknamed itself the “Lethal Warriors.”
“I don’t think I knew how big the (rabbit) hole was,” says Philipps, a skinny 31-year-old with a baby face, cartoon-spiky hair and a goofy grin. “At a couple of points in both the book and the articles, I didn’t know if I could pull it off.”
If you prod him, he’ll admit there were personal costs, says Philipps. He worked on a lot of the story on his own time. His mom says he was more stressed than usual, especially when deadlines loomed. And he also found that, here and there, his work leaked into unwelcome places in his everyday life.
But Philipps had a story to tell. It would become one of the most celebrated stories to emerge from the war in Iraq.
“First and foremost, he was curious,” says Joanna Bean, his editor on the project. “He wondered what was going on. Second, he was tenacious. He never let go of the story.”
Philipps started writing the series on which the book is based in January 2009. He’d been hearing disturbing stories from his wife, a local public defender, as well as the newspaper’s regular military reporter. Many Fort Carson soldiers were coming home to the Springs, they said, and getting into real trouble: bar fights, domestic violence, robbery, murder. The nucleus of the violence was the Lethal Warriors, and he wondered why.
“As a kid, I grew up in Widefield among military families. I counted them as family friends all my life. I sensed something had changed, and I wanted to know what.”
He investigated the Warriors for months. Some wouldn’t talk. Some did and he’s not exactly sure why.
“They hit rock bottom when they were in prison for murder,” he says of the men he focuses on in the book, “and now they don’t have careers (in the military) to worry about. Maybe they were at a point they were trying to make sense of it all.”
But he never got the sense it was therapeutic.
“Very few people who ever talked to me wanted it to be told,” he says.
Over months of research, he uncovered possible reasons behind the violence: the desensitizing nature of training, the yo-yo tours, brutal battles that wound but don’t guarantee a ticket home and, most importantly, PTSD, a problem that most soldiers regarded as stemming from cowardice.
The result was a deeply human and extensively researched two-part Gazette series, “Casualties of War,” printed in July 2009. It earned Philipps the prestigious Livingston Prize for National Reporting and a finalist spot for the Pulitzer Prize. It also launched him to the national stage, with interviews on CNN, ABC News and NPR.
New York book editor Alessandra Bastagli heard the NPR interview, and then read his series.
“I was shattered,” she says.
It reminded Bastagli of one of the first anti-war protests she attended in Washington, D.C., nearly a decade ago.
“Susan Sarandon gave a speech that really struck me,” says Bastagli, executive editor at Palgrave Macmillan. “She said that we were told we had to fight the war over there so that we didn’t have to fight it here in America. But that we would end up fighting the war over here, when our men and women returned, wounded and traumatized by war. That made sense to me and I decided to try and find someone who could write a book about PTSD.”
Years later, she found that someone who could.
“I think he absolutely pulled it off,” Bastagli says of Philipps, who has written a compelling amalgam of narrative, war, mystery and psychology. “He’s done everything with this book that I hoped to find in all these years of searching.”
It hasn’t all been sweet. Since the stories came out last year, Army officials have criticized Philipps for focusing on a few soldiers who went bad, instead of the vast majority who continued to be productive citizens. Philipps says he was careful all along to point out that these soldiers were the exceptions. But these exceptions, he says, shed light on important issues.
“The alternative is what happens if you don’t tell the stories at all,” he says. “We have the power to make it better. … Even if there are no concrete changes, it helps to shape the narrative.”
How prominent that narrative will become may depend on how well “Lethal Warriors” sells. He shrugs about the chances of it being a best-seller. He has no idea, and he has no plans to quit his day job.
Philipps’ publisher did manage to get nice blurbs from a few heavy hitters. Newsman Tom Brokaw called it “a must-read for every American.” Four-star Gen. Wesley Clark called it heartbreaking, and “a detailed and tragic record of this impact, and the Army’s and society’s struggles to deal with the consequences.”
As he gets ready for book signings and readings, he acknowledges that the two-year project had more than its share of personal fallout.
He’s had nightmares, especially during his writing of the violent scenes in the book. For a while he stopped watching TV news or movies about war.
“I had to turn it off,” he says. “It seemed like such a waste.”
And then there are the stories and the images that he can’t yet shake.
“Listen to this crazy story,” says Philipps, both excited and incredulous. A medic, he says, confessed to him that he committed a war crime — one that no one else knew about.
There was a shootout in Iraq, the man told him, one no more spectacular or brutal than any other there. After the battle was over, there were bodies. One Iraqi survived, though, with a only a wound in the gut.
“As the medic, he has to give care, even to Iraqis,” Philipps says. “But he pulled out a bayonet and killed the guy.”
He pauses, taking in the horror of it.
“It’s not a big surprise that these guys acted the way they did at home.”
Readings and book signings with author Dave Philipps
• 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11, Tattered Cover Highlands Ranch, 9315 Dorchester St., Highlands Ranch. (1-303-470-7050)
• 1 to 3 p.m. Nov. 13, Borders Books and Music, 2120 Southgate Road (632-6611)