By Golda Lee
On the eve of Veteran’s Day, award-winning journalist and Columbia alumnus David Phillips returned to his alma mater to launch his first book, “Lethal Warriors.” The book is a factual account of the 506th battalion’s return from Iraq to Colorado Springs and the series of violent crimes that its members commit as they battle Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “If I had been there, if I had seen what these guys had seen, I don’t know if I’d be very different” Phillips said to a small gathering of students of the Journalism School.
Speaking candidly, he described the process of writing the book, which began as a long form news story. Then a soft news journalist, he uncovered data that showed a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average among returned members of a single battalion. At least 12 of the members had been arrested for murder or attempted murder. At first he tried to pass the story along. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said. After all, he was not the military reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette where he worked.
Answering questions from students, Phillips explained how he built trust with sources and described the challenges of going up against the notoriously uncommunicative U.S. Army. When interviewing imprisoned soldiers – some convicted murderers – he found that if he mentioned that he had been referred by another member of the unit who shared a similar fate, the subject was more disposed to talking. “They’re not happy giving me information for their sake, but they’re happy to tell their stories for the unit’s sake,” he said.
He also recounted the strong opposition from high-ranking army officials to his investigation, in particular a visit from a Fort Carson colonel who warned his editor to pull him off the story. He admitted being terrified on the day his first article on the subject was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Phillips has been immersed in the subject of PTSD for many years now, and one thing has become very clear to him: welcome home with a cheeseburger is not good enough. According to Philips, the division of the army which specializes in the treatment of mental conditions has not grown with demand for their services, and the soldiers are bringing the war home. He calls it an “atrocity-producing situation.”
Phillips has won the Livingston National Prize for Reporting, and he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of violence at Fort Carson.
Golda Lee is a student at the Graduate School of Journalism concentrating in Politics.