A Journalist's Archive

Lethal Warriors
David Philipps
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          “Lethal Warriors” is a riveting book about a tragically-sad subject. A superb investigative reporter, David Philipps used incredibly fluid prose to create a MUST READ for anyone wishing to understand the true consequences of war.
          Philipps doesn’t mince this fact; no mental shut-off switch engages when soldiers return home from war. Combatants in Iraq faced suicide bombers, routine blasts from IEDs, and sniper fire from an invisible enemy who blended into the populace after their mission was accomplished. All of the above is true for the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan today.
          When our troops walked through the simulated fog and into the arms of loved ones at Fort Carson “Welcome Home” ceremonies, they were called “heroes.” But when violent crime sprees began sweeping Colorado Springs, some were assigned new titles: “drunks, drug addicts, wife beaters, thieves, rapists, murderers.”
          Despite the sudden uptick in horrendous acts occurring in “an otherwise peaceful city,” officials at Fort Carson chalked-up the crime-wave to “a few bad apples.”
          Some members of the media, including Philipps, noticed the majority of the recent murders were committed by soldiers from the 506th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. The regiment was known as “The Band of Brothers” during WWII. Both then and now, they engaged the enemy in the most hazardous regions of a conflict. After many deployments, their new handle changed to “Lethal Warriors.” Which is exactly what a small number of them became when they brought the war home to Colorado Springs.
          Yet local media outlets never dug deep enough to uncover the full story. That’s why Philipps decided to take up the slack. At the time, he was writing articles for the Lifestyle Section of the Colorado Springs Gazette. So perhaps we can forgive their staff for dismissing his request to investigate this subject further. Really, it’s just as well. Because that only helped to fuel the passion necessary to create such a masterful book.
          Readers in the Pikes Peak region should be familiar with the majority of names in this book. Their mug shots were plastered across television screens and newspapers. “Lethal Warriors” begins on December 1, 2007, as a newspaper deliveryman discovers the body of Kevin Shields sprawled out in the snow on the west side of the city. Shortly thereafter, police arrested Kenneth Eastridge, Louis Bressler and Bruce Bastien, all three were members of the 2nd Brigade who served with Shields in Iraq.
          Over the next 12 months, Philipps writes, “Soldiers from the returning brigade killed five more people.” Myra Cervantes and Cesar Ramirez were gunned down as they were putting up signs for a garage sale. On her way to work, a 19-year old single mother was run-over by a car as she walked to the bus stop. And the list of senseless violence goes on.
          But if this book was merely a rehash of old headlines, Philipps wouldn’t have become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Check out the “Notes” at the back of the book. Philipps wanted to discover the “what, why, where, and when” behind this aberrant behavior. Zeroing in on  Kenneth Eastridge, he writes a chilling account of the 2nd Brigade’s deployments in Korea and Iraq. Through numerous interviews, he delves into childhood backgrounds, education levels,  violent video games they played in Korea to pass the time, and the gung-ho movies they watched. Going a step further, he conducts interviews with their relatives to determine personality patterns before and after Iraq.
          The action in Iraq was mind-boggling, to say the least. But in the end, a clearer picture  emerges. Repeated deployments, long tours of duty, seeing your buddies get killed, and living in fear of the same, can warp even the most stable mind.
          Intertwined in the pages, Philipps covers every aspect of post-traumatic stress disorder. Here are a few examples. 1) Denial by both soldiers and the military that PTSD  actually exists. 2)The stigma associated with PTSD, which brands troops as not being manly enough to “suck it up.” 3) The lack of doctors and medical resources to adequately treat the increasing numbers afflicted by the disease. 4)Treatments that masks the symptoms of PTSD – for a short time. This includes an array of cocktail prescription drugs: anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, anti-seizure medication, sleeping pills and more. In combination, or when taken with alcohol and street drugs, the cure can cause more harm than good.
          In Chapter 4, “Casualties of War,” Philipps details the parts of the brain affected by PTSD. It’s a primer on what neuroscientists have recently discovered about the disease. Using  analogies, Philipps makes the medical jargon understandable.
          While the Army’s process of turning a “battle mind into a peacetime mind,” was woefully inadequate, Philipps never excuses the soldiers’ criminal activity. He reiterates what he was told by Fort Carson officials, “the vast majority of soldiers in the unit had not committed any crimes…”
          The inclusion of General Mark Graham and his family in “Lethal Warriors” proves that the military’s attitude towards PTSD is indeed changing. Graham attacked the stigma associated with PTSD. Under his command, Fort Carson soldiers displaying mental problems were no longer to be classified as “slackers.” Instead, he ordered his officers to make sure soldiers received the mental care they needed.
          In addition, reading the toll war extracted from Graham’s own family makes it clear  the mental illness associated with combat has no boundaries. No socioeconomic class escapes its wrath.
          My only criticism of “Lethal Warriors” is that it is too multifaceted to do it justice in a book review.  Philipps also covers depression, traumatic brain injuries, and the increased suicide rate among veterans.
          In my opinion, Philipps may have missed out on that Pulitzer because of his bluntly honest conclusion, stated on the second-to-last page. It’s a truth no one wants to contemplate while we still have troops in Afghanistan.
          Read “Lethal Warriors.” It’s an appalling part of our recent history. Let’s hope our leaders read it too, because war always extends beyond the battlefield.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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