There’s a story about Chris Kyle: on a cold January morning in 2010, he pulled into a gas station somewhere along Highway 67, south of Dallas. He was driving his supercharged black Ford F350 outfitted with black rims and oversize knobby mudding tires. Kyle had replaced the Ford logo on the grill with a small chrome skull, similar to the Punisher emblem from the Marvel Comics series, and added a riot-ready aftermarket grill guard bearing the words ROAD ARMOR. He had just left the Navy and moved back to Texas.
Two guys approached him with pistols and demanded his money and the keys to his truck. With his hands in the air, he sized up which man seemed most confident with his gun.
Kyle knew what confidence with a gun looked like. He was the deadliest sniper in American history. He had at least 160 confirmed kills by the Pentagon’s count, but by his own count—and the accounts of his Navy SEAL teammates—the number was closer to twice that. In his four tours of duty in Iraq, Kyle earned two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars with Valor. He survived six IED attacks, three gunshot wounds, two helicopter crashes, and more surgeries than he could remember. He was known among his SEAL brethren as The Legend and to his enemies as al-Shaitan, “the devil.”
He told the robbers that he just needed to reach back into the truck to get the keys. He turned around and reached under his winter coat instead, into his waistband. With his right hand, he grabbed his Colt 1911. He fired two shots under his left armpit, hitting the first man twice in the chest. Then he turned slightly and fired two more times, hitting the second man twice in the chest. Both men fell dead.
Kyle leaned on his truck and waited for the police.
When they arrived, they detained him while they ran his driver’s license. But instead of his name, address, and date of birth, what came up was a phone number at the Department of Defense. At the other end of the line was someone who explained that the police were in the presence of one of the most skilled fighters in U.S. military history. When they reviewed the surveillance footage, the officers found the incident had happened just as Kyle had described it. They were very understanding, and they didn’t want to drag a just-home, highly decorated veteran into a messy legal situation.
Kyle wasn’t unnerved or bothered. Quite the opposite. He’d been feeling depressed since he left the service, struggling to adjust to civilian life. This was an exciting reminder of the action he missed.
That night, talking on the phone to his wife, Taya, who was in the process of moving with their kids from California, he was a good husband. He asked how her day was. The way some people tell it, he got caught up in their conversation, and only right before they hung up did he remember his big news of the day: “Oh, yeah, I shot two guys trying to steal my truck today.”
A brief description of the incident appeared in fellow SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s 2012 book Service: a Navy SEAL at War— but not Kyle’s own best-seller, American Sniper—and there are mentions of it in various forums deep in the corners of the internet. Before Kyle’s murder at the hands of a fellow veteran in February, I asked him about that story during an interview in his office last year, as part of what was supposed to be an extended, in-depth magazine story about his service and how hard he worked to adjust back to this world—to become the great husband and father and Christian he’d always wanted to be.
He didn’t want to get into specifics about the gas station shooting, but I left that day believing it had happened.
• • •
The offices of Craft International, the defense contractor where Chris Kyle was president until his death, were immaculate. You needed one of the broad-chested security guards from downstairs as an escort just to get to that floor of the building. Sitting under thick glass in the lobby, there was an exceptionally rare, original English translation of Galileo’s Dialogue (circa 1661). A conference room held a safe full of gigantic guns—guns illegal to own without a Department of Defense contract.
By the official count, Chris Kyle racked up 160 confirmed kills as a Navy sniper. He pegged the actual number as twice that.
At 38, Kyle was a large man, 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, and the muscles in his neck and shoulders and forearms made him seem even bigger, like a scruffy-bearded giant. When he greeted me with a direct look in the eye and a firm handshake, his huge bear paw enveloped my hand. That day he had on boots, jeans, a black t-shirt, and a baseball cap. It’s the same thing he wore most days he came to the office, or when he watched his daughter’s ballet recitals, or during television interviews with Conan O’Brien or Bill O’Reilly.
This was one of the rare chances when he’d have a few hours to talk. Over the next three days, he would be teaching a sniper course to the Dallas SWAT teams and he had three book signings, one at a hospital in Tyler (for a terminal cancer patient whose doctor reached out to him), one at Ray’s Sporting Goods in Dallas, and one at the VA in Fort Worth. He’d also have to fly down to Austin for a shooting event Craft was putting on for Speaker of the House John Boehner and several other congressmen.
“We are not doing this for free,” he said, anticipating a question. “We accept Republicans and Democrats alike, as long as the money is good.”
A few weeks later, he would have to cancel a weekend meeting because he was invited to hang out with George W. Bush. “Sorry,” he said, when asked if anyone else might be able to join. “Not even my wife’s allowed to come.”
He loved the Dallas Cowboys and the University of Texas Longhorns. He loved going to the Alamo, looking at historic artifacts. The license plate on his truck had a picture of the flag used during the Texas Revolution, with a cannon, a star, and the words COME AND TAKE IT. Being in the military forced him to move a lot, and neither of his children was born in Texas. But for each birth, he had family send a box of dirt from home—so the first ground his kids’ feet touched would be Texas soil.
He was outspoken on a lot of issues. He believed strongly in the Second Amendment, politely decrying the “incredible stupidity” of gun control laws anytime he was asked. He said he was hesitant to see the movie Zero Dark Thirty because he’d heard that it was a lot of propaganda for the Obama administration. Once, he posted to his tens of thousands of Facebook fans: “If you don’t like what I have to say or post, you forget one thing, I don’t give a shit what you think. LOL.”
He didn’t worry about sounding politically incorrect. The Craft International company slogan, emblazoned around the Punisher skull on the logo: “Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems.”
His views were nuanced, though. “If you hate the war, that’s fine,” he told me. “But you should still support the troops. They don’t get to pick where they’re deployed. They just gave the American people a blank check for anything up to and including the value of their lives, and the least everyone else can do is be thankful. Buy them dinner. Mow their yard. Bake them cookies.”
“The best way to describe Chris,” his wife, Taya, says, “is extremely multifaceted.”
He was a brutal warrior but a gentle father and husband. He was a patient instructor, and he was a persistent, sophomoric jokester. If he had access to your Facebook account, he might announce to all your friends and family that you’re gay and finally coming out of the closet. If he wanted to make you squirm, he might get hold of your phone and scroll through your photos threatening to see if you kept naked pictures of your girlfriend.
Kyle liked when people thought of him as a dumb hillbilly, but he had a remarkable ability to retain information, whether it was a mission briefing, the details of a business meeting, or his encyclopedic knowledge of his own hero, Vietnam-era Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock. While on the sniper rifle, Kyle had to do complicated math, accounting for wind speed, the spin of a bullet, and the curvature and rotation of the Earth—and he had to do it quickly, under the most intense pressure imaginable. Those were the moments when he thrived.
The most common question he was asked was easy to answer. He said he never regretted any of his kills, which weren’t all men.
“I regret the people I couldn’t kill before they got to my boys,” he said. That’s how he referred to the men and women he served with, across the branches: “my boys.”
He said he didn’t enjoy killing, but he did like protecting Americans and allies and civilians. He was the angel of death, sprawled flat atop a roof, his University of Texas Longhorns ball cap turned backward as he picked off enemy targets one by one before they could hurt his boys. He was the guardian, assigned to watch over open-air street markets and elections, the places that might make good marks for insurgent terrorists.
“You don’t think of the people you kill as people,” he said. “They’re just targets. You can’t think of them as people with families and jobs. They rule by putting terror in the hearts of innocent people. The things they would do—beheadings, dragging Americans through the streets alive, the things they would do to little boys and women just to keep them terrified and quiet—” He paused for a moment and slowed down. “That part is easy. I definitely don’t have any regrets about that.”
He said he didn’t feel like a hero. “I’m just a regular guy,” he said. “I just did a job. I was in some badass situations, but it wasn’t just me. My teammates made it possible.” He wasn’t the best sniper in the SEALs teams, he said. “I’m probably middle of the pack. I was just in the right spots at the right times.”
The way he saw it, the most difficult thing he ever did was getting out of the Navy.
“I left knowing the guy who replaced me,” he said. “If he dies, or if he messes up and other people die, that’s on me. You really feel like you’re letting down these guys you’ve gone through hell with.”
The hardest part? “Missing my boys. Missing being around them in the action. That’s your whole life, every day for years. I hate to say it, but when you’re back and you’re just walking around a mall or something, you feel like a pussy.” It nagged at him. “You hear someone whining about something at a stoplight, and it’s like, ‘Man, three weeks ago I was getting shot at, and you’re complaining about—I don’t even care what.’ ”
Kyle said he didn’t feel like a hero. “I’m just a regular guy,” he said.
There was also the struggle to readjust to his family life. “When I got out, I realized I barely knew my kids,” he said. “I barely knew my wife. In the three years before I got out, I spent a total of six months at home. It’s hard to go from God, Country, Family to God, Family, Country.”
But three years after he left the SEALs, he had a job he liked. He could do (mildly) badass things: shoot big guns, detonate an occasional string of explosives, be around a lot of other former special-operations types. His marriage was finally back in a good place. He had a book on the best-seller list. And he had the chance to help veterans through a number of charities.
“A lot of these guys just miss being around their boys, too,” he said. “They need guys who speak their speak. They don’t need to be treated like they’re special.”
He’d often take vets out to the gun range. Being around people who understood what they’d been through, being able to relax and shoot off some rounds, it was a little like group therapy.
With his family, and with training people, helping people, he had found a new purpose. Chris Kyle could do anything if he had a purpose. He’d been like that since he was a little boy.
• • •
He was the son of a church deacon and a Sunday school teacher. His father’s job at Southwestern Bell had the family moving a lot, so he was born in Odessa, but he told people he grew up “all over Texas.” About the same time he was learning to read, he learned to love guns. He liked to hunt with his father and brother. For his birthday parties, he wanted to have BB gun wars. He perched on the roof of his parents’ house waiting for his friends to dart across the yard. He wasn’t a great shot back then, but at least one friend is still walking around with one of Kyle’s BBs in his hand.
In high school in Midlothian, he played football and baseball. He showed cows through the FFA. He and his buddies cruised for girls in nearby Waxahachie. He also liked to fight. His father warned him never to start a fight. Kyle said he lived by that code “most of the time.” He found that if he was sticking up for his friends, or for kids who couldn’t defend themselves, he got to fight and he got to be the good guy at the same time. Once he felt like he was standing up for something right, he would never back down.
Bryan Rury was a close friend of Kyle’s in high school. Rury was much smaller than his friend, but it seemed they were always standing next to each other. “I think Chris liked looking like a giant,” Rury says.
One time, there was a new kid in school who was trying to make a name for himself by picking on Rury. Kyle came into class one day to find Rury quiet, upset. “He asked me what was wrong, and I wouldn’t tell him,” Rury says. “But he figured it out on his own pretty fast.”
Kyle went over to the new kid’s desk and, in his not-so-subtle, Chris Kyle way, told him he better leave his friend alone. Or else. The kid stood up from his desk, and they went at it. Kyle almost never started the fight, his friends say, but he always ended it. “As they were taking him off to the principal’s office, I just remember him flashing me that giant smile of his,” Rury says.
After high school, he went to Tarleton State for two years, mostly to postpone the responsibilities of adulthood. He spent more time drinking than studying, and soon he decided he’d rather be working on a ranch full-time. But he knew his future was in the military—in the Marines, he thought, until a Navy recruiter told him about all the cool things he could potentially do as a SEAL—and he figured he shouldn’t waste any more time.
Kyle breezed through the Navy’s basic training. He only made it through BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training by way of sheer resolve. He told stories about lying there on the beach, his arms linked with his friends’, their heads hovering above the frigid rising tide. He knew if he got up and rang the bell—if he quit—he could get hot coffee and a doughnut. The uncontrollable shivering—they called it “jackhammering”—lasted for hours, but he never wanted to stop. He joked that he was just lazy, that if the bell had only been a little closer, maybe his entire life would have been different. But the truth is, nothing could have kept him from his dream.
“He had more willpower than anyone I’ve ever met,” Taya says. “If he cared about something, he just wouldn’t ever quit. You can’t fail at something if you just never quit.”
Taya met Kyle in a bar in San Diego, just after he finished BUD/S. When she asked what he did—she suspected from the muscles and the swagger that he was in the military—he told her he drove an ice cream truck. She figured he’d be arrogant but was surprised to find him idealistic instead. But she was still skeptical. Taya’s sister had divorced a guy who was trying to become a SEAL, and she’d specifically said she could never marry someone like that.
But Kyle turned out to be quite sensitive. He was able to read her better than anyone she’d known. Even when she thought she was keeping something hidden behind a good facade, he could always see through it. That kept them from needing to talk about their emotions or constantly reassess their relationship. They got married shortly before he shipped out to Iraq for the first time.
• • •
It takes years to earn enough trust to be a SEAL sniper. Even after sniper school, Kyle had to prove himself again and again in the field, in the pressure of battle. He served other missions before Afghanistan and Iraq, in places he couldn’t discuss because the operations were classified.
As he would eventually describe in American Sniper, his first kill on the sniper rifle came in late March 2003, in Nasiriya, Iraq. It wasn’t long after the initial invasion, and his platoon—“Charlie” of SEAL Team 3—had taken a building earlier that day so they could provide overwatch for a unit of Marines thundering down the road. He was holding a bolt-action .300 Winchester Magnum that belonged to his platoon chief. He saw a woman about 50 yards away. As the Marines got closer, the woman pulled a grenade. Hollywood might have you believe that snipers aim for the head—“one shot, one kill”—but effective snipers aim for the middle of the chest, for center mass.
Kyle pulled the trigger twice.
“The public is soft,” he used to say. “They have no idea.” Because of that softness, he had to have that story, and others, cleared by the Department of Defense before he could include them in his book.
He wanted outsiders to know exactly what kind of evil the troops have had to deal with. But he understood why the Pentagon wouldn’t want to give America’s enemies any new propaganda. He knew the public didn’t want to hear about the brutal realities of war.
Kyle served four tours of duty in Iraq, participating in every major campaign of the war. He was on the ground for the initial invasion in 2003. He was in Fallujah in 2004. He went back, to Ramadi in 2006, and then again, to Baghdad in 2008, where he was called in to secure the Green Zone by going into Sadr City.
Most of his platoon was in the Pacific theater before the 2004 deployment. Kyle was sent early to assist Marines clearing insurgents in Fallujah. Tales of his success in combat trickled back to his team. He was originally supposed to watch over the American forces perched at a safe distance, but he thought he could provide more protection if he was on the street, going house to house with his boys. During one firefight, it was reported that Kyle ran through a hail of bullets to pull a wounded Marine to safety. His teammates, hearing these stories, started sarcastically referring to him as The Legend.
Those stories of bravery in battle proliferated on his third deployment. A younger SEAL was with Kyle at the top of a building in Ramadi when they came under heavy fire. The younger SEAL, who is still active in the teams and can’t be named, dropped to the ground and hid behind an interior wall. When he finally looked up, he saw Kyle standing there, glued to his weapon, covering his field of fire, calling out enemy positions as he engaged.
Kyle said the combat was the worst on his last deployment, to Sadr City in 2008. The enemy was better armed than before. Now it seemed like every time there was an attack, there were rocket-propelled grenades and fights that went on for days. This was also the deployment that produced Kyle’s longest confirmed kill.
He was on the second floor of a house on the edge of a village. With the scope of his .338 Lapua, he started scanning out farther into the distance, to the edge of the next village, a mile away. He saw a figure on the roof of a one-story building. The figure didn’t seem to be doing much, and at the moment he didn’t appear to have a weapon. But later that day, as an Army convoy approached, Kyle checked again and saw the man holding what looked like an RPG. At that distance, Kyle could only estimate his calculations.
He pulled the trigger and watched through his scope as the Iraqi, 2,100 yards away, fell off the roof. It was the world’s eighth-longest confirmed kill shot by a sniper. Later, Kyle called it a “really, really lucky shot.”
Chris Kyle didn’t fit the stereotype of the sullen, lone wolf sniper. In many ways, he was far from the model serviceman. While he always kept his weapons clean, the same was not true of his living space. The way some SEALs tell it, after one deployment, his room was in such a disgusting condition that it took two days to clean. There were six months worth of spent sunflower seed shells he had spit around the bed.
He was seldom seen in anything remotely resembling a military uniform. His teammates remember him painting the Punisher skull on his body armor, helmets, and even his guns. He also cut the sleeves off his shirts. He wore civilian hunting shoes instead of combat boots. Eschewing the protection of Kevlar headgear, he wore his old Longhorns baseball cap. He told people he wore that hat so that the enemy knew Texas was represented, that “Texans shoot straight.”
Kyle heard people call snipers cowards. He would point out that snipers, especially in urban warfare, decrease the number of civilian casualties. Plus, he said, “I will reach out and get you however I can if you’re threatening American lives.”
He terrorized his enemies in true folkhero fashion. In 2006, intelligence officers reported there was a $20,000 bounty on his head. Later it went up to $80,000. He joked that he was afraid to go home at one point. “I was worried my wife might turn me in,” he said.
Taya has been asked often over the years how she reconciles the two Chris Kyles: the trained killer and the loving husband and father—the man who rolled around on the floor with his kids and planned vacations to historical sites and called from wherever he could. (Once he thought his phone was off and she ended up overhearing a firefight.) She always worried about him, but understanding how he could do what he did was never hard.
“Chris was out there fighting for his brothers because he loved them,” she says. “He wanted to protect them and make sure they all got to go home to their families.”
He never cared to talk much about the number of confirmed kills he had. It’s likely considerably higher than what the Pentagon has released, but certain records could remain classified for decades. Besides, while the number garners a lot of attention, it doesn’t tell Kyle’s story. He told people he wished he could somehow calculate the number of people he had saved. “That’s the number I’d care about,” he said. “I’d put that everywhere.”
While seeing his enemies die never gave him much pause, losing his friends devastated him. When fellow Team 3 Charlie platoon member Marc Lee died in August of 2006—the first SEAL to die in the Iraq war—Kyle was inconsolable. All of Lee’s teammates prepared remarks for a memorial service in Ramadi. Kyle wrote out a speech, but when it came time to give it, he couldn’t talk. Every time he tried, he broke down, sobbing.
“He came up and hugged me afterwards,” an active SEAL says. “He apologized. He said, ‘I’m sorry. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t do it.’ ”
It was at a similar event later that year— a wake for fallen SEAL Michael Monsoor, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a grenade to save the lives of fellow SEALs—when Kyle had his now-infamous confrontation with former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura.
They were in a bar popular among SEALs in Coronado, California. Kyle said that Ventura, a former SEAL himself, was in town for an unrelated event and stopped by the wake. According to Kyle, Ventura disrespected the troops, saying something to the effect of, “You guys deserve to lose a few.” That was enough. Kyle punched him and left the bar. Ventura denied the entire incident and later filed a lawsuit against Kyle. But two other former SEALs, friends of Kyle’s, told me they were there that night, and it happened just the way Kyle said it did.
• • •
By 2009, the life was taking its toll on Taya. She told him that, because he was gone so much, she would see him just as often if she lived somewhere else. He took that as an ultimatum. As Kyle pointed out in his book and in interviews, the divorce rate among Navy SEALs is over 90 percent. He knew he wouldn’t be able to do both. So he left his promising career, the dream job for which he felt exceptionally well-suited, the purpose that had kept him so motivated for 10 years.
“When I first got out, I had a lot of resentment,” he said. “I felt like she knew who I was when she met me. She knew I was a warrior. That was all I’d ever wanted to do.” He started drinking a lot. He stopped working out. He didn’t want to leave the house or make his usual jokes. He missed the rush of combat, the way being at war sets your priorities straight. He missed knowing that what he was doing mattered. More than anything, though, he missed his brothers in the SEALs. He wrote to them and called them. He told people it felt like a daze.
But when he wrote to his closest friends, he talked about the one benefit of being out of the Navy. In all those years at war, he’d had almost no time with his two children. And in his time out, he discovered there was something he liked even more than being a cowboy or valiant sniper.
“He loved being a dad,” Taya says. She noticed he could be rough and playful with their son and sweet and gentle with their daughter. “A lot of fathers play with their kids, but he was always on the floor with them, rolling around, making everyone giggle.”
Kyle began to feel better. He got sick of feeling sorry for himself. He didn’t want a divorce. He started working out again— “getting my mind right,” he called it.
When he met other vets who were feeling down, he told them they should try working out more, too. But many of them, especially the wounded men with missing limbs or prominent burns, explained that people stared too much. Gyms made them uncomfortable. That’s how he got the idea to put gym equipment in the homes of veterans. When he approached FITCO, the company that provides exercise machines for facilities all over the country, and asked for any used equipment, they said no. They donated new equipment instead and helped fund a nonprofit dedicated to Kyle’s mission.
“With helping people,” Taya says, “Chris found his new purpose.”
She watched him use the same willpower that had carried him through SEAL training and all those impossible missions, but now he was trying to become a better man. He started coaching his son’s tee-ball team and taking his daughter to dance practice. He’d always liked hunting, but he hated fishing. Still, when he learned that his son liked to fish, he dedicated himself to becoming a great fisherman, so they could bond the way he did with his own dad.
Kyle took the family to football games at Cowboys Stadium. He took them to church. Unless he was hanging out of a helicopter with a gun doing overwatch, he hated heights. But when his kids wanted to go, he took them to Six Flags to ride the roller coasters and to the State Fair for the Ferris wheel. His black truck became a familiar sight driving around Midlothian.
He started collecting replicas of Old West guns, like the ones the cowboys used in movies when he was a boy. Taya would find him practicing his quick draw and gun twirling skills. Sometimes they would sit on the couch, watching TV, and he would twirl an unloaded six-shooter around his finger. If she saw someone on the screen that she didn’t like, she would jokingly ask, “Can you shoot that guy?”
He’d point the pistol at the TV and pretend to fire.
“Got him, babe.”