David Philipps was reporting for his hometown newspaper in Colorado Springs when the Iraq War came home, in the form of a string of murders at Fort Carson. “The newspaper would report on them in the way newspapers do, saying what had happened, following the court cases through. But it wasn’t answering the big question of why were so many young returning soldiers getting arrested for murder?” he said. “Trying to answer that question is where everything started.” In Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home, Philipps tells the story of a how a few returning soldiers who witnessed the worst of war ended up in prison. Below, he chats with Zócalo about what happens when the war comes home.
A. What got me interested initially was the sheer number of murders. In one brigade – that’s about 3,500 soldiers, give or take – we had 10 murders in about two years. That doesn’t sound like a huge number, but if you compare it to the rate of the U.S., it’s about one hundred times the national average for murders. It’s an enormous spike. We weren’t necessarily seeing that from other brigades at Fort Carson. I asked myself, what happened to these guys? What happened in Iraq or elsewhere that gave them a murder rate one hundred times the national average? It was the sort of thing you couldn’t help but ask about.
Q. What was your experience talking to these men?
A. I had found that, even among my good friends who had served in Afghanistan or Iraq, it is impossible to get them to tell you anything meaningful. They don’t want to talk about it. If they ever did talk about it, it was little vignettes. I think a lot of journalists have struggled with this. finding out what the veterans’ experiences really were is hard. They don’t necessarily want to talk about it, particularly with a civilian who wouldn’t understand anyway.
But when I went to talk to these guys who were arrested, I figured it might be different for a couple of reasons. One, they’ve been in prison for a long time, which gives them time to reflect. They have four or five hours to put aside to talk. They don’t have a whole lot to do. Two, they don’t have anything to hide. They’ve been convicted of murder. Rather than not wanting to talk about something they felt ashamed about, maybe all of a sudden they’re trying to search for meaning in themselves. They’re asking, why am I here? How did I get here? As long as you approach them without any preconceptions, they’re very willing to talk. I didn’t ask many questions. I just said, start in high school and tell me how you got to prison.
Q. What was the common element among them, if there was one? Why did they end up in prison?
A. One of the things a lot of people who had followed these cases suggested – including people in the army – is that the common element had nothing to do with their experience in the army, but rather that they were troubled guys from broken homes. And certainly some of them were troubled guys from broken homes, but some were not. What I found in common was that this one brigade had been sent to the worst, most violent places in Iraq at the worst, most violent times of the war on two different occasions. They had the worst luck you could possibly have, and took casualty rates at multiple times the rates of other brigades at Fort Carson. They had seen the worst, both in terms of seeing people you care about lost, and in terms of what you’ve done. One guy I write about – his official kill count in two tours was something like 60 to 80 people. He’s supposed to come back to the U.S. and be a normal, functioning person? I think a lot of people could understand that that could be a real struggle.
Q. Is PTSD something that’s well understood and openly talked about among soldiers today?
A. We’ve been at war for almost a decade, and the awareness of PTSD has really changed. These guys all got into the army in 2003, right when the war was starting. The trouble was between 2007 and 2008. Early in the war, because we had very little experience with real combat, I think people knew what PTSD was, but they didn’t understand that it was real. Someone might get it, they acknowledged, but only if they were weak, if there was some defect with them. If you weren’t tough enough, if you were afraid, then you told the commanders you had PTSD. Likewise some commanders, certainly not all, viewed PTSD as an excuse, something people said they had to get out of training or scary missions. When these guys I profile were coming up through the ranks, there was a tendency to ignore PTSD. If you liked being a soldier, you didn’t want anything to get in the way. But now you have people who maybe joined as a private in 2002 – they could be in charge of a whole platoon right now, or even higher, and those people have seen multiple tours and things have started to change. There is a growing awareness. But to a large extent, that awareness was gained through the cost of these guys in prison.
Q. How does the military deal institutionally with PTSD?
A. That’s changed over the years as well. In 2003 and 2004, there were classes in place, but I think they were treated as a checklist. You have to go to the suicide prevention class, the PTSD class, and maybe people didn’t take it that seriously. What’s changed now is that there is better education, and it doesn’t come from just going to a class where you’re advised by people you don’t know. Now, a platoon leader will teach his platoon. Since those younger guys look up to this old hard soldier with tours under his belt, they’ll have more respect for him and be likely to listen.
Education is part of it, but better monitoring is part of it too. Sometimes the symptoms of PTSD can look a lot like just being a bad soldier. Maybe a soldier who was a good, attentive, detail-oriented person simply stopped showing up or had an attitude or drank too much. All these things can be signs of PTSD. Commanders are getting better about educating their soldiers. That has only started to evolve in the last couple years.
Q. What’s the history of PTSD – have we always reacted this way to war?
A. If we’re talking human evolution, the human brain hasn’t changed much in 10,000 years. You can assume that whatever our emotional reactions are to things now is very similar to how they were at the start of civilization. We see that show up in literature. Did they have a diagnosis for these things? No, but there are scholars who point out that Odysseus sounds a lot like PTSD as we now call it.
Certainly the first time in the American experience that there was really talk of the psychological effects of war is during the Civil War. They called it “shell shock” or exposure. There were a lot of guys who were affected by it. World War I and World War II you see the same thing, but the names changed a bit-they might call it battle fatigue. The treatment was always to take guys back away from the front, away from the shells, give them good food, give them rest, and encourage them to come back. You couldn’t let them go home, because everyone who wanted to go home would just say they have it. That was how it went through Vietnam, and to an extent in Iraq too.
The label PTSD came around after Vietnam, through the lobbying of a veterans’ group. They were having guys come home and saying, “Okay, I’m home now, the war is over, but I’m still messed up.” That’s where we get the “post.” There are some researchers who are starting to argue that the term PTSD does not encompass all of the things that go wrong, and that the name of it is in fact inaccurate and leads to guys not wanting to admit they have it. It’s called a “disorder.” And yet researchers argue it’s not a disorder. It’s a natural reaction to an unnatural situation. What they’re advocating is that we start calling it “combat stress injury.” Soldiers know what an injury is. You get shot-it’s not your fault. If you don’t get help, you’re in serious trouble. Calling PTSD a combat stress injury lets soldiers see it differently: they can think, “I went into battle, I got injured. My body has an ability to heal, but if I’m injured seriously enough, I need care.” Some army and marine commanders are starting to use that term, to try and destigmatize it, to get soldiers away from thinking of it as a disorder.
In terms of treatment, it’s still really tough. There are some things that are somewhat proven – the government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research. But there’s not necessarily a cure.
Q. Calling it a “combat stress injury” also takes out the “post” – is that important for treatment?
A. There’s something called acute stress syndrome – classic shell shock. You’re in a bad firefight and you’re frazzled. They might treat you in theater, just away from bullets. They usually count something as PTSD if after 30 days a soldier is still experiencing stress reactions of any kind – whether he or she is on edge, having nightmares and flashbacks, acts hyperaggressively. PTSD is certainly within the umbrella of what they call combat stress injuries. But there are other things that wouldn’t necessarily count. If someone, because of their experiences, finds their beliefs and values eroded – that doesn’t necessarily fit within the definition of PTSD. But it is one of those things that still needs to be recognized and treated. One researcher says that along with PTSD you can have what he calls “moral injuries.” You’re doing things that are against the universal human code, and that can be very damaging to people.
Q. How does the civilian population understand PTSD? Do we deal with it well enough?
A. I don’t know if we’re any more open to it or not. I think there is still a stigma and a lack of understanding, even among the civilian population, as to what these stress injuries are. Frankly, it’s just not something civilians have had to address. Over and over you hear that one of the characteristics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is that most of us haven’t noticed any change in our lives at all. There are families that have had one of their parents deploy four times. They know all about it. But a lot of folks, unless they have a family member or friend or loved one in service, they may not know anything about PTSD. It’s just another acronym. All of a sudden, when young soldiers who have been neglected are killing people in your city, it’s no longer an abstract policy question, or something you can ignore. The problems of the war have come home.
Q. You mentioned there’s no real “cure”. What can be done to better deal with returning soldiers who may have PTSD?
A. I really believe that almost all people are able to heal from these experiences on their own. You may never be the same. But a lot of guys that came back and were arrested for murder – they just didn’t have anyone looking out for them. They treated their PTSD with drugs and alcohol, and because they had one of the symptoms of real paranoia and overreaction. So for paranoia they carry a gun, and for overreaction, they used it. These guys who ended up being arrested – they weren’t evil. To a certain extent they had an indifference toward life, learned through combat. They could have been helped. They could have gained normalcy again – through a slower integration into society, with someone looking out for them. They might have had a good sergeant to tell them they were drinking too much and that they should talk about it.
Q. Does the incidence of PTSD have something to do with the war, and lack of support for it, as some say was the case during Vietnam?
A. I wasn’t around for Vietnam, so who knows if that’s even true, or whether that’s political rhetoric-one side blaming the other for making us lose the war. Here’s what’s really different about other wars and these wars. In the Civil War, if you got wounded, you had a one in three chance of dying from your wounds. It didn’t change all that much as time went on. In World Wars I and II, you had a one in four chance. Same with Vietnam. Right now, it’s probably somewhere around one in 15 or one in 20. A lot more guys who went over there and saw really bad stuff happen are now back here. Naturally if you have more guys surviving trauma, you’re going to have more combat stress injuries. That statistic is probably even higher, because a lot of guys are in armored humvees and have body armor – they’re not getting injured at all, at least not on the books. We have more vets returning without a scratch than we ever had before. The war doesn’t look that bad when you look at casualty numbers, but inside, these soldiers may be in pieces.
These wars are like Vietnam in that you don’t know who the enemy is. We’re asking very young guys to make impossible moral decisions. Do you overreact in terms of protecting yourself and your unit and maybe kill a civilian, or do you underreact and try and save a civilian and possibly get yourself or your friends killed? They deal with that decision every day.
*Photo courtesy The U.S. Army.