The Gazette of Colorado Springs recently published a series about the psychological struggles of a group of Iraq War veterans who'd been arrested for violent crimes at home. But while doing that reporting, journalist Dave Philipps uncovered another story about war crimes committed in Iraq. Philipps explains why he was an unlikely reporter to be writing this piece.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Every once in a while we come across a story that is, simply put, a reminder of the powerful role the press can play in a community. In July, The Gazette of Colorado Springs published a two-part series titled Casualties of War, which chronicled the heavy toll the Iraq War had taken on a group of soldiers posted at Fort Carson, Colorado. The Fourth Infantry Division’s Fourth Brigade Combat Team saw brutal fighting, first in the Sunni Triangle in 2004, and then in downtown Baghdad in 2006. Many who fought in the unit suffered deep psychological wounds as a result of the combat, wounds they carried home to Colorado. Since being discharged, at least ten of the brigade’s infantry have been arrested for murder, attempted murder or manslaughter. When reporter Dave Philipps began this story he thought it would be a piece about the soldiers’ psychological struggles upon their return, but while reporting that story, through interviews with the soldiers incarcerated for their crimes over here, he uncovered war crimes that had been committed over there, in Iraq. The details of the piece are staggering, gruesome and heartbreaking. We wondered how Phillips got on the story in the first place because the military most definitely wasn't on his beat.
DAVE PHILIPPS: My beat at the paper regularly is outdoor recreation, which means that I'm the guy who gets to write about how great Colorado skiing is and mountain biking. But with all papers contracting like they are, we are all filling in more and more beats. I think any reporter will tell you that. So I'd been doing a lot of feature writing over the last few years, and this was just something that seemed so pivotal to our community. The Department of Defense is the largest employer in Colorado Springs and its employees essentially were coming back and committing heinous violent crimes as a result of their work experience. And so, that was just central both to those of us who are serving in the military and people who lived here in town.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so the snowmobiling reporter goes to the editor and says, I want to do 15,000 words on ex-soldier felons. After he or she stopped laughing, what happened next?
DAVE PHILIPPS: Well Bob, you never tell your editor how long you think the story’s going to be.
[BOB LAUGHS] And, you know, I think honestly this was a lot like a home improvement project where you think it’s going to be a lot easier than it is, and then you tear off the roof and you see what’s really under there. We started out in March of 2009 with just a few prison interviews. Those prison interviews led to some pretty shocking stories of what would widely be considered war crimes, and just shocking treatment of men who had served their country and really got very little in return.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about dealing with the military during the course of your reporting. Were the public affairs officials and the top brass at Fort Carson available to you? Did they stonewall you? What was their participation?
DAVE PHILIPPS: From day one, they were completely unhelpful, or I should say that some of them were completely unhelpful. In an organization that big, you have a lot of factions. Fort Carson has been very forward looking and open minded about caring for its soldiers and trying to change what’s not working. However, the commanders of this brigade, and particularly some of the battalions in it, were outright hostile. They refused to give me even basic information, such as how many Humvees the units had. They wouldn't provide any high level leaders to answer some of the pretty serious charges that I had because they said they were busy. I said, well, okay, since they're busy, give me lower leaders. They said, they're busy too. I was like, give me soldiers who were there. They said, they're all busy, everybody’s busy. We just had to really back up our story by finding enough soldiers who were out, who could say, yeah, that’s what happened.
BOB GARFIELD: You earlier mentioned the war crimes that your reporting uncovered. Tell me if I'm oversimplifying here, but what you discovered in your research and in your discussions with these young men was that the Army had very effectively created killing machines. They killed when they came back to civilian life, but they killed in an undisciplined and possibly illegal way when they were stationed in Iraq. Can you give me some examples?
DAVE PHILIPPS: Well, I don't want to give the impression that the Army trained these guys to do this because I don't think they did. But they trained them to engage in a certain kind of war, and it’s not the war that they found when they got there. What you have is a number of very young men, 18, 19, 20 years old. They're in a situation where they are told to fight an enemy that they can't see. It’s an insurgency with no uniforms. And something like 80 percent of the casualties from this unit came from improvised explosive devices, so they were getting blown up by a faceless enemy. And they started looking at the entire population there, civilian population, as the enemy, and I think a lot of times, in frustration, they would act out. One soldier told me that if they got hit by an IED they would just point their guns and their grenade launchers in every direction and shoot anyone that was there.
BOB GARFIELD: Within the bounds of listenership sensitivity, can you give me some more examples?
DAVE PHILIPPS: Well, soldiers told me they were so frustrated and mad by the end of their 2004 tour in Ramadi that they would run out over cars that didn't get out of the way, in their essentially small tanks, a vehicle called a Bradley. Soldiers told me that they would shoot people driving by the base, sometimes without reason, not really knowing if they were killed or not, and that you didn't have to fear retribution unless they could be absolutely sure that you did it with no cause, which was almost impossible. And then there were also guys who just essentially went nuts while they were on patrol. I talked to one young man Kenneth Eastridge who was sitting in the turret on top of a Humvee guarding a street, and he had a 240 machine gun, which I believe shoots about 600 bullets a minute. And he just started shooting. And his fellow soldiers ordered him to cease fire over the radio, and he just kept shooting and shooting. And I asked him, at the end, how many people do you think you killed? And he told me, not that many, maybe a dozen.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned an overwhelming response to your piece. I'm particularly interested in the official response from Fort Carson and from the Pentagon. Have they acknowledged the conclusions of your reporting, and if so, how so?
DAVE PHILIPPS: Fort Carson has acknowledged my reporting somewhat in that they have a number of programs that they've set up to help soldiers to improve mental health care on their return. They've not spoken directly to me since the story came out. However, our senator from Colorado, Mark Udall, and other congressmen that are on the Armed Services Committee, are holding a hearing because of the story. So I imagine that Fort Carson and, hopefully, the Fourth Infantry Division commanders will have to answer some questions for them.
BOB GARFIELD: What about military investigations into the crimes that these men reported committing on duty in Iraq?
DAVE PHILIPPS: Only one of the soldiers I'd talked to told the military in the past about war crimes he had witnessed. The military told me, when I asked, that they had thoroughly investigated it by talking to a number of soldiers in his unit, and those soldiers had all said that nothing like that had happened. I don't know if they also interviewed Iraqis. They didn't tell me that they did. But, obviously, if they did not, there’s a big hole in those kinds of investigations. I asked to see all records from the unit of anyone who was punished for doing things that I heard about, such as using electrical stun guns, using illegal ammunition and things like that, and they told me that they routinely destroy all disciplinary records. So whatever trail there was is quickly disappearing.
BOB GARFIELD: Colorado Springs is a conservative community. It has a huge military population. Has there been any kind of defensiveness in the response? Have you been attacked, threatened, dismissed?
DAVE PHILIPPS: Without exaggerating, I've gotten one negative comment in my email box that simply said, you suck, but I also have a number of ones – I got one this morning from a Special Forces captain who said he appreciated such an in-depth and unbiased look at what was going on. I think that there’s sort of a sigh of relief that some of this stuff that hadn't been said is now being talked about.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Dave, congratulations again, a spectacular piece of work. And thank you for joining us.
DAVE PHILIPPS: Hey, thanks for reading the whole thing.
BOB GARFIELD: I can't quite say it was a pleasure, but it was remarkable. Dave Philipps is a reporter for The Gazette of Colorado Springs.