Dave Philipps, an investigative reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette and recent Pulitzer Prize winner spoke about his prize-winning story on Wednesday night in Armstrong Hall. His story, “Other than Honorable,” chronicles the story of three combat veterans who suffered injuries during their time served and are facing being kicked out of the army with no medical benefits. Philipps won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, and was also a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer for his story Band of Brothers about a combat brigade that produced a great number of violent criminals. Philipps has been a reporter at the Gazette for eight years and is also the author of the book Lethal Warriors.
In a presentation that incorporated videos and photos of the veterans he interviewed, Philipps presented his compelling piece and shared the journey of writing and researching the story. Philipps’ story followed Kash Alvaro, Jerrald Jensen, and Paul Sasse, all combat veterans, as they battle with war injuries and a military eager to contract their numbers through discharges, often related to ‘misconduct.’ These veterans suffer from PTSD and other physical ailments; Jensen had his face completely reconstructed after an explosive hit him in the side of the head. They were also denied coverage from the military due to records of misconduct.
“Our question was, when these guys, the guys that need help the most, get kicked out what happens next?” said Philipps.
Because many soldiers suffer from PTSD or psychological injuries after serving in combat, it becomes hard for the military to diagnose. “Its unclear as to what is misconduct and what is an injury,” said Philipps. He found, however, that the military often simply tried to kick out the soldiers in question and halted medical coverage rather than treating the injuries.
Although the military was certainly not always helpful or cooperative in providing Philipps with information, he was able to find incredibly compelling statistics from medicals records. “One of the lovely things, from a reporters perspective, is that they document all of this so that we can look at it later,” said Philipps. He also cited the Freedom of Information act as an important tool in researching his story.
The story has certainly made waves amongst the veterans community and has even propelled action on Capitol Hill. “Veterans essentially took this story around Capitol Hill and started drafting the language to close these loopholes and make it harder to take away these soldier’s benefits,” said Philipps.
Another remarkable element of the story was its format. Philipps created a multimedia piece with videos, audio clips, and countless images that were interspersed throughout the text of the story. “Small newspapers don’t really do stories like this,” said Gazette editor Joanna Bean who was also at the presentation. “But we did it anyway.” Certainly, the story required a great amount of resources and was written over the course of about a year, an unusually in-depth and investigative undertaking for a paper the size of the Gazette.
Philipps shared that the process of collecting and interviewing for the story was challenging, as it was often difficult to obtain information both from the veterans themselves, who suffered from psychological injuries, and the military, who were not eager to reveal this treatment of veterans. Philipps knew that the story ultimately had to be told anyways. “You’re never going to get perfect knowledge,” he said. “The alternative is that no one writes the story.” Philipps and Bean encountered a great amount of backlash from the military once their investigations were discovered. “The military is really great at information warfare,” said Philipps. “I think that’s because they really did believe that we were wrong.”
Because Philipps, Bean, and Ciaglo became so invested in the stories that they were covering, they were also challenged to keep themselves out of the story and remain unbiased. “I remember Joanna and I had a conversation because one of the guys needed a ride to a doctors appointment,” said Philipps. “And we eventually had to draw the line and say if the guy needs immediate care you can do that.” Otherwise, Philipps and his team tried to keep themselves out of the story.
Philipps’ editor, Bean, and his photographer, Michael Ciaglo, joined him on stage for a question and answer period. Ciaglo was an intern for the Gazette while he was the photographer for the story, and Philipps and Ciaglo joked about some humorous exposures of his inexperience throughout the journey, even though the photos that he created were spectacular.