More veterans are left behind every day as they are discharged from the US Army for misconduct, despite clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the past three years, Colorado Springs Gazette journalist Dave Philipps began uncovering harsh truths about the US Military’s denial around PTSD and its mounting attempts to discharge soldiers without medical benefits.
Philipps has been covering the military and veteran beat for approximately four years. His three-day series, “Other Than Honorable” won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting. His journalism career began at The Gazette in Colorado Springs where he wrote outdoor features. Yet somehow he went from writing about outdoor adventures in Colorado to writing a Pulitzer Prize winning series about the military’s controversial decisions to discharge soldiers.
When Philipps began writing for The Gazette in 2002, there were roughly 125 employees. Over the course of the next 10 years, that number diminished almost by half. Layoffs increased and the staff shrunk; sections of the newspaper suffered, including the coverage on the war in Iraq.
Philipps’ wife, Amanda, serves as a public defender in Colorado Springs. At the same time some sections of the newspaper were neglected, Amanda defended a 21-year-old soldier who had recently returned from Iraq and was arrested for pointing a gun at his girlfriend. Amanda speculated that the solider had a bad case of PTSD and explained to Philipps that the soldier could be discharged for misconduct. She suggested that the army could fail to realize that the soldier’s behavior was likely due to an “invisible injury” as a result of the trauma experienced in Iraq. Although interesting, Philipps did not see a story.
After returning from another Iraq tour approximately 11 months later, the same soldier was arrested in Colorado for multiple murders, making The Gazette’s front-page. Philipps pleas to reporters to dig further into the backstory ignored. Then Philipps began to look into soldiers at Fort Carson, Colo., a United States Army installation in El Paso County. At the time, Philipps noticed that a majority of the soldiers who committed crimes were all in the same battalion. During this time, roughly 2006 to 2008, the U.S. Army was largely ignoring cases of PTSD, and many soldiers were kicked out of the army for misconduct.
Philipps began to write a story about these same soldiers, as well as why the U.S. Army was discharging soldiers. He wrote the story in secret while still writing about the outdoors. The Gazette published his story and it was nominated for a 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting. The story gained national attention and “gave [Philipps] me this permission or inspiration not to write inconsequential stuff anymore.” His beat at The Gazette transitioned from outdoor features to military and veteran affairs. “No one in journalism was really writing well about PTSD; it’s really hard. Soldiers don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
Philipps knew that it would be hard for soldiers to talk to him about their “invisible injuries,” as it was taboo for a soldier to come home from war and be mentally wounded. “Your entire identity, the thing you’re most proud of, is the Marine Corps. You’re not going to come out and say you have PTSD, you want to stay in the Marine Corps,” Philipps said. Aware of the difficulties in curating sources, Philipps started with soldiers in prison. As he put it, those soldiers had already hit rock bottom and had most likely been dishonorably discharged. He hoped these soldiers would be more open to talking about their experiences. Philipps soon realized that the military is very tribal and he had to be accepted before a solider would open up. Philipps expressed that these soldiers were helping their fellow soldiers, not just him.
Philipps continued his investigation into the “invisible injuries” suffered by soldiers returning from war. His three-day series, “Other Than Honorable,” tells accounts of soldiers who had been misdiagnosed with adjustment disorder instead of PTSD. The series grabbed the attention of people in Washington and encouraged policy changes. When he moved to New York to report for The New York Times on military and veteran affairs, he quickly realized the “eastern elitist bubble of reporting” limited him from writing about the military. Now, in Colorado Springs, he is a remote reporter for The New York Times.
Philipps continues to report on soldiers struggling with PTSD. In the culture of war, “PTSD, in a sense, is you failing your mission.” Not only do soldiers hesitate to speak up about their symptoms, but medical professionals at Fort Carson are pressured not to diagnose soldiers with PTSD. If a soldier suffers from PTSD, the U.S. Army is liable. However, if a soldier is diagnosed with adjustment disorder, a disease with similar symptoms, it is the soldier’s own fault and they are ineligible to receive medical benefits.
In Colorado Springs, Philipps runs into people in uniform almost everywhere he goes, the grocery store, the car wash, or even in an Uber. He believes his job is to shine a light on what’s going on in the military. Although he disagrees with discharging a solider for misconduct related to “invisible injuries,” he said, “You have to make an honest attempt at understanding things from [both sides’] point of view.” Philipps’ goal is an honorable and straightforward one: to tell people’s stories and let them speak for themselves.