Lethal Warriors

In an excerpt from his new book,  2010 Dart Ochberg Fellow Dave Philipps uncovers the story of how members of a U.S. Army battalion exposed to some of the cruelest combat conditions in Iraq carried the nightmare of war back home.

The 4th Brigade Combat Team came home from two tours in Iraq with more than 100 soldiers killed in action and 500 wounded. It was just the beginning of their battles. After a year home, nine soldiers from the hard hit unit had been arrested for senseless, gruesome, and shockingly random murders.

A man delivering newspapers found Kevin Shields’s body.

It was 5:00 A.M. Saturday, December 1, 2007—four years, seven months, and eleven days after the start of the Iraq War. The deliveryman was rolling in his Ford pickup through a century-old neighborhood packed with crooked bungalows on the west side of Colorado Springs. The block was dark. The sky was clear. Bare branches hung over the predawn street like a black net swimming with stars. The thermometer stood at 14 degrees and the still air had painted frost on the rows of parked cars. Most of the sprawling city of 600,000 on the high, dry prairie at the foot of the Rockies was still asleep. The jagged silhouette of the mountains on the western edge of town stood cloaked in darkness except for a single light shining from the very summit of 14,000- foot Pikes Peak. The quiet yards reeled past the pickup’s open window, one after another, and the soft thud of copies of the Colorado Springs Gazette falling on the sidewalks and porches sounded the peaceful cadence of the start of another day.

Then there was the body.

The deliveryman pressed on the brakes, a newspaper still in his hand, shoved the shifter into park, and craned out the window for a closer look. 

Kevin Shields was sprawled faceup across the sidewalk, his head near the gutter, just inches from the pickup’s front tire. He looked young, maybe twenty years old, was clean shaven with smooth boyish cheeks, had a military buzz cut, and was wearing no hat or gloves despite the cold. His half-open eyes stared blankly at the net of stars. His feet almost touched a white picket fence hung with red ribbon for Christmas. His head was tilted slightly downhill and blood spilling from his nose and mouth had trickled back and pooled around his eyes, drying in the perfect shape of a mask. A barely smoked Camel lay on his chest where it had landed after falling from his lips.

“Hey, buddy! You OK?”1 the deliveryman shouted.

Kevin Shields did not answer.

A bullet had punched a small hole through his right cheek, right where a beauty mark might be. It had splintered the thin shell of his skull and torn apart his temporal lobe—the part of the brain that attaches meaning to complex, nuanced images like black branches lacing the night sky or red bows on a white picket fence. A second bullet had pierced his neck, jabbing up through his skull and destroying the part of his cerebellum that acts as the internal metronome bringing balance, time, and space together. A third shot through his tongue and throat before clipping his spinal cord. A fourth tore through the blood-rich muscles of his left thigh.

Kevin Shields was dead.

The deliveryman dropped the rolled-up copy of that day’s Gazette, fumbled for his cell, and dialed 911. 


The paper that hit the pavement not far from Shields’s body that morning held a grab bag of news typical of any city of 600,000: TEACHER CUTS HAIR FOR CHARITY, BUDGET CUTS WORRY EMERGENCY OFFICIALS, MOUNTAINS MAY GET FOUR FEET OF SNOW. But tucked away on page three was news unique to Colorado Springs: BRIGADE LIKELY WILL BE HOME BY CHRISTMAS.

Colorado Springs is perhaps the most military city in America. Take away the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and in many ways Colorado Springs appears to be any modern western American city, punctuated by inoffensive earth-toned suburban sprawl. The town regularly racks up “best city” awards from glossy magazines. Most residents are transplants attracted by good jobs, low crime, clean air, and sunshine. Roots are shallow. History is short. There is no regional accent, cuisine, or industry. The biggest nongovernmental employer is Wal-Mart. Neighborhoods are often distinguishable only by the neon clusters of chain stores and restaurants. It could be Mesa, Arizona, or Santa Ana, California, or Salt Lake City, Utah. In many ways, the defining culture is a lack of a defining culture.

At the same time, Colorado Springs is far from typical because it is surrounded by military bases. To the north is the U.S. Air Force Academy, where elite cadets train to be pilots and officers. To the east is Schriever Air Force Base, where pilots who wear jumpsuits but almost never leave the ground control a shadowy armada of military satellites and drones. To the west, burrowed more than a thousand feet into the solid granite of Cheyenne Mountain, is NORAD, where Cold War–era computers scan every inch of earth’s orbit for incoming nuclear missiles. And to the south sits Fort Carson, the third-largest army base in the country. Around the cluster of military installations swirls an orbit of defense contractors. The annual local economic impact of the military is estimated to be about $4 billion. One out of every three dollars spent in Colorado Springs flows through the U.S. Department of Defense.

The morning Kevin Shields was shot, many of the more than twenty thousand troops at Fort Carson were in their second, third, or fourth deployments in the wars sparked in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Iraq War—a conflict that military commanders initially said would last six months, tops—was grinding through its fifth and bloodiest year. And the war in Afghanistan, which was predicted to be just as quick and easy, was in its seventh.  The troops were increasingly weary and worn out, and so was the country’s appetite for war. By late 2007, much of America’s initial flag-waving fervor for the wars had either drifted to other distractions or dug in to predictable positions of partisan rhetoric and email forwarding.

But in Colorado Springs, the war was not an abstract policy question or another partisan fulcrum. It was day-to-day life. War was seen not so much as a question of right or wrong but as a professional duty. No matter what the troops thought of George W. Bush or the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, or the whole multibillion-dollar adventure, if they were summoned, they went and did their job. The families left behind usually focused not on the big-picture headlines coming out of Washington or on the squabbling of commentators on cable, but on the daily bulletins of small victories and defeats—good news and bad news—that could change their lives forever.

The top story in the Colorado Springs Gazette lying near Shields’s body that day was a rare scrap of good news in a year that had been mostly bad. It announced that the 3,900 soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division would be home for Christmas. The brigade had left home to spend twelve months in Baghdad in October 2006 at the height of vicious sectarian clashes between Muslim factions in the city. Then the surge to retake the city came and the unit’s tour was extended for three months. In that fifteen-month tour, 64 men in the 3,700-soldier brigade were killed in combat. Another 240 were seriously wounded. The brigade, which made up only a fifth of Fort Carson’s population, claimed more than half of its casualties. The unit’s corner of Baghdad was so infested with roadside bombs, sniper fire, and revenge killings between warring factions that when the brigade commander, Colonel Jeff Bannister, spoke on the phone to the Colorado Springs Gazette for the story about their homecoming, he proudly said things were clearly getting better: there hadn’t been a single attack for 24 hours. “That’s huge,” he told the reporter.

In fact, there had been an attack on the brigade that day. And another death.