David Philipps is a Colorado native living in Colorado Springs. His first job was with the Colorado Springs Gazette, where he worked as a paperboy in his youth and in 2014 won the Pulitzer Prize for a report exposing how soldiers at Fort Carson who showed post-deployment symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injury often were punished and thrown out of the military without benefits. He’s currently a national correspondent for the New York Times covering the military and veterans.
He answered questions about his new book, “Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs.”
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Philipps: “Alpha” is the account of real-life events: An elite Navy SEAL platoon that returned from a secret mission only to report their decorated leader for murder. As a journalist, I learned about the arrest and immediately had a hunch that by following the story I would learn something important — though I had no idea what –about the often classified world of this venerated community of commandos.
In the course of reporting the story, I realized the story of ALPHA platoon was a gripping saga that said a lot about what it is like to be a professional war fighter in the endless Forever Wars that followed 2001, but also a timeless parable about loyalty and betrayal, and how right and wrong can get so tumbled together that it is hard to know which way is up.
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Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
The excerpt is the prologue of “Alpha” – 10 minutes of calm where the reader has a chance to meet a heroic, decorated Navy SEAL chief named Eddie Gallagher right before the moment that his life, and the lives of his men, are shattered.
The rest of the book takes the reader through trying to put the pieces back together, with plenty of unexpected sharp edges along the way.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
I have been writing about the military as a journalist for 15 years, which gave me some instincts on what had happened and why. They turned out to be nearly all wrong.
I had to fall back on the instincts of a journalist, to do truly deep reporting with an open mind and let the facts lead the way. I drew inspiration from the great work of long-form journalists like Jon Krakauer and John McPhee.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions?
This is a non-fiction story, so the reporting and writing took many unexpected turns along the way and introduced characters in ways and at times that a novelist would never do. (Former president Donald Trump makes a few surprise appearances in Act III — not something an author trying to weave a coherent plotline would ever wish for.)
Ultimately, as a journalist, I had the same task as the men who lived through this and the larger organization of the SEALs, to try to gather together all the competing and sometimes contradictory facts and find larger meaning in them. What I found surprised me. I hope it surprises readers.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
The reporting was both difficult and dangerous. The biggest challenge was writing an unflinching book about a trained sniper and accused murderer who did not like what I had to say.
I also faced the challenge of trying to find sources in a community of Navy SEALs where silence, suspicion and shame made it very hard for people to trust an outsider and speak openly. I was lucky to have strong support from friends and colleagues who kept me going.
Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
This book has started a conversation in the Navy SEALs, Special Operations as a whole, and in leadership circles of the Pentagon about problems in the military justice system and the elite brotherhoods of Special Operations.
It has also started a conversation in the ranks, where many SEALs now feel they have the freedom to talk about what kind of SEAL Teams they want to see in the future. I hope for the civilian reader, the book gives an unvarnished look into the world of classified commandos that they rarely get to see, and helps them realize that SEALs are as human as the rest of us.
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Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
All of my books have started first as newspaper articles. For me, articles act as quick field sketches that let me study a story and decide if there is more to it.
I spent a year, on and off, writing articles about the Edward Gallagher case. But the book writing process is far different. After a year of reporting, I had to go back and re-report the whole story, identifying the moments that were important and gathering layers and layers of detail so I could write them in a cinematic way that would put readers in the room with ALPHA platoon.
It was much more about feeling and the inner impressions of the men who lived this saga, and much less about focusing only on the cold, hard, official facts.
Tell us about your next project.
No next project right now. I have always let book projects thrust themselves upon me, and so far, while that has not always been convenient, it has always been productive. In the meantime, I’ll try to stay focused on the work I do at The New York Times.