A reporter explains how he went from covering powder skiiing to telling the story of a brigade with a murder rate 20 times the national average – and the even more startling story of what they faced in Iraq.
Dave Philipps' two-part, 15,000-word series "Casualties of War," brought national recognition to the Colorado Springs Gazette and to the terrible price that war was exacting on some of America's veterans. Behind a brigade's alarming record of violent crime, he discovered a story of young men thrust into combat and then back into civilian society with little in the way of training or support. Philipps has since expanded the series into a book, "Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home."
The series and book are not the latest in a body of work by a career investigative or military reporter; Dave Philipps is a youthful outdoor recreation reporter who found himself involved in a ground-breaking military investigation. His story has lessons for reporters just beginning to cover the military, as well as those with vast experience.
Dave Philipps: If you had said to me, "Okay, go out and do a story that involves 15 different soldiers all convicted of murder or attempted murder, all from the same unit, and I want you to include multiple tours, several countries around the world, and all the family members that you can possibly find – and oh, by the way, there's war crimes in there, too," I would have set out to do that story and failed.
TEXT SLIDE: Dave Phillips published a series about a combat brigade with a murder rate 20 times the national average.
DP: A lot of investigative journalists talk about connecting the dots, and that's really the key, because if you just start with one dot, and all you have to do is get to the next dot, and then the next dot, you can do that. And it is a lot like that, because until you do connect the dots, you can't see the image. And so that is what we did. It was finding one soldier in prison then talking to him about, you know, "Where are your buddies now?" Where are his buddies? And going through that personal network and sidestepping the official Army network ... I think that was another real key to success. A lot of times, even though these stores are about the military, you have to do them in spite of the military.
TEXT SLIDE: Philipps discovered they were struggling with psychological injuries after facing some of Iraq's bloodiest battles.
DP: The back story to this is that I am not an investigative reporter. I am an outdoor recreation reporter in Colorado, which means I write about powder skiing and backpacking and mountain-climbing. But, within doing that beat, what you learn is that — because it's not a beat that has a lot of officials and established channels that you go through to get information — you learn to talk to people: the regular people that are actually doing the thing.
And that is a lesson that translates to any beat. And so when I went in to find out the story of these soldiers — look, there had been ... The New York Times and the Washington Post and everybody else had already come to Colorado Springs and taken a crack at it, but they'd always gone through the official channels down, and I was like, "No." You gotta start at the bottom with these "dumb" 19-year-olds who joined the Army and they're all together and they were all there. You know, "dumb:" foolish, young, I don't mean that as an insult. And that's where the story really came from, is talking to the humans at the bottom level and building it from there, and then later you have the officials deny anything, and they show you studies that say, "No, this didn't happen," you know, "We investigated." And you know that that's a lie. So that was a really important lesson that translated.
TEXT SLIDE: You can read Dave Philipps' series, "Casualties of War," at http://gazette.com