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.”
J. KYLE BASS IS A HEDGE FUND MANAGER in Dallas, the founder of Hayman Capital Management. He was featured prominently in the Michael Lewis book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, which documented both his keen financial mind and his fantastically opulent lifestyle. A few years ago, Bass was feeling overweight and out of shape. A former college athlete, he wanted something intense, so he found a Navy SEAL reserve commander in California, a man who gets prospective SEALs prepared for BUD/S, and asked if they could tailor a short program for him. Bass found that he really liked hanging out with the future and active SEALs. He said if they knew any SEALs coming back to Texas, he’d love to meet them.
That’s how Bass met Chris Kyle. Bass was building a new house at the time, and he offered to fly in Kyle and pay him for some security consulting.
“I was just trying to come up with anything to help the guy out,” Bass says. “I was looking for ways to try and help him make this transition back into the real world.”
Bass invited Kyle to live at his house with him while Taya finished selling their place in San Diego. He introduced Kyle to as many “big money” people as he could. And the wealthy men were enthralled by Chris Kyle. They loved being around the legend. They loved hearing his stories and invited him to go hunting on their ranches. Bass would hold an economic summit every year at his ranch in East Texas. He would kick off the festivities by introducing his sniper friends.
“I’d have Chris and other SEALs come out and do exhibition shoots,” Bass says. “They would take 600-yard shots at binary explosives, so when they hit them it’s this giant explosion that shakes the ground.” He smiles as he tells the story. “For all the people that manage money all over the world and on Wall Street to come to Texas and see a Navy SEAL sniper shoot a bomb, it’s about as cool as it gets.”
Bass and some business associates also helped start Craft International. They put the Craft offices on the same floor as Hayman, so the finance folks and the defense contractors often crossed paths. Despite working in a plush office building in downtown Dallas, Kyle didn’t change much. Even if he saw an important meeting, it wouldn’t stop him from grinning and flipping off an entire room of people.
The idea was to market Kyle’s skills. He could help train troops (a lot of military training is done by third-party contractors), and police officers, and wealthy businessmen who would pay top dollar for hands-on instruction from an elite warrior like Chris Kyle. He could take people out to Rough Creek Lodge in Glen Rose, a luxury resort with an extended shooting range. It’s the same place he would take buddies and wounded vets when they were feeling down and needed to unwind.
KYLE INSISTED THAT HE NEVER HAD ANY intention of writing of a book. He was told there were already other writers working on it, and he figured if it was going to happen anyway, he might as well participate. He wanted to give credit where he felt it was due.
He and Taya were flown to New York in the middle of winter, to meet writer Jim DeFelice and begin pouring out their story. The interviews were exhausting.
“He was not naturally loquacious,” DeFelice says. “Nor did he particularly like to talk about himself. When we first started working together, telling me what happened in the war put an enormous strain on him. He was reliving battles in great detail for the first time since he’d gotten out of the service. He could have been killed in any number of the situations he’d been in. That’s a reality that can be difficult to comprehend at the time, and even harder to understand later on.”
Kyle did find time at one point for a snowball fight with DeFelice’s 13-year-old son. The war hero claimed he’d had plenty of experience in snow, but on this day, the boy got the better of him. Kyle came running in and grabbed a beer.
“Okay, kid,” Kyle told him. “Now you can say you beat a Navy SEAL in a snowball fight.”
Kyle decided not to take a dime from American Sniper. As it became a best-seller, his share amounted to more than $1.5 million. He gave two-thirds to the families of fallen teammates and the rest to a charity that helped wounded veterans. It was something he and Taya discussed a lot.
“I would ask him, ‘How much is enough? Where does your family fit in?’ ” she says.
“But I understood.”
When the book came out, everyone wanted to interview him. He was on late-night talk shows, cable news, and radio. He did a number of reality TV shows related to shooting. (He rarely took much money from the appearances.) He always went on with a ball cap on his head and a wad of tobacco in his mouth.
He had 1,200 people at his first public book signing. It was similar in every town. He preferred to stand for the length of the book signings. “If y’all are standing, I can stand,” he said. He would wait until he signed every book he was asked to, even if it took hours. It often did, because he wanted to take a moment to talk with each person. He tried to personalize each book. He’d pose for photos, one after another.
As he became more famous, more people wanted to spend time with him. More politicians wanted to go shooting with him. At one point, he was at a range with Governor Rick Perry. Perry was about to shoot the sniper rifle and asked Kyle if he had an extra pad to put on the cement before he lay down. Kyle replied with a mock-serious tone.
“You know, Governor,” he said, “Ann Richards was out here not too far back, and she didn’t need a pad at all.”
A good friend once introduced him to the movie star Natalie Portman. He asked her what she did for a living. And, as the story goes, she liked him even more after that.
Then there is this story: Kyle had been invited to a luxury suite at a UT football game and decided to take a heartbroken buddy of his, a Dallas police officer who had recently caught his girlfriend making out with another guy. They were in the suite for a few hours, talking, drinking, when a former UT football star happened to walk in. At some point, Kyle realized that this former star was also the guy who had kissed his friend’s girlfriend.
Kyle’s friend knew what was coming. He begged him not to, but it was in vain.
“It’s man law,” Kyle said.
He had a party trick he liked to perform, a sleeper hold that would render a man unconscious in seconds. Kyle called it a “hug.” People would dare him to do it to them, saying they wouldn’t go down.
Sure enough, Kyle approached the former star and gave him a “hug” right there in the suite. As women were shrieking and wondering if the former UT great was dead, Kyle kept the hold for just a little longer than normal, causing the man to lose control of his bowels as he passed out.
It wasn’t just his friends he took care of. People wrote to him from all over the world, asking for favors or for his time, especially after he started appearing on TV. He did his best to accommodate every request he could, even when Taya was worried he was spreading himself too thin.
“He was so trusting,” she says. “He didn’t let himself worry about much.”
JODI ROUTH, A TEACHER’S AIDE AT AN elementary school close to Kyle’s home, had a son, a former Marine, who needed help. She reached out to Kyle because she knew his history of caring for veterans. Kyle told people he and his friend, Chad Littlefield, were going to take the kid out to blow off some steam.
Littlefield was a quiet buddy Kyle had come to count on over the last few years. They worked out and went hunting together. He had come over a few nights earlier to have Kyle adjust the scope of his rifle. Kyle invited Littlefield to come with him to Rough Creek. They were going to take Jodi Routh’s son shooting. Littlefield had accompanied Kyle on similar trips dozens of times.
They were in Kyle’s big black truck when they showed up in the Dallas suburb of Lancaster, at the home Eddie Ray Routh shared with his parents. He was a stringy, scraggly 25-year-old. He’d spent four years in the Marines but in the last few months had twice been hospitalized for mental illness. His family worried that he was suicidal. They hoped time with a war hero, a legend like Chris Kyle, might help.
It was a little after lunch on Saturday, February 2, when they picked up Routh and headed west on Highway 67. They got to Rough Creek Lodge around 3:15 pm. They turned up a snaking, 3-mile road toward the lodge and let a Rough Creek employee know they were heading to the range, another mile and a half down a rocky, unpaved road.
This was a place Kyle loved. He had given many lessons here over the last three years. He’d spend hours working with anyone who showed an interest in shooting. This is where he would take his boys when they needed to get away. In the right light, the dry, blanched hills and cliffs looked a little like the places they’d been in Iraq. When a group went out there, away from the rest of the world, they could relax and enjoy the camaraderie so many of them missed.
We may never know exactly what happened next. They weren’t there long, police suspect, before Routh turned his semiautomatic pistol on Kyle and Littlefield. He took Kyle’s truck, left Rough Creek, and headed east on 67. Later he would tell his sister that he “traded his soul for a new truck.” A hunting guide from the lodge spotted two bodies covered in blood, both shot multiple times.
Routh drove to a friend’s house in Alvarado and called his sister. He drove to her house where, his sister told police, he was “out of his mind.” He told her he’d murdered two people, that he’d shot them “before they could kill him.” He said “people were sucking his soul” and that he could “smell the pigs.” She told him he needed to turn himself in.
From there, Routh drove home to Lancaster, where the police were waiting for him. When they tried to talk him out of the truck, he sped off. With the massive grill guard, he ripped through the front of a squad car. They chased Routh through Lancaster and into Dallas. He was headed north on I-35 when the motor of Kyle’s truck finally burned out, near Wheatland Road. Routh was arrested and charged with two counts of murder.
CHRIS KYLE’S MEMORIAL WAS HELD AT Cowboys Stadium to accommodate the 7,000 people who wanted to pay their respects. Before the doors even opened that morning, there was a line wrapped halfway around the stadium, people standing patiently in the cold, damp air.
Plenty of people attending knew Kyle. But most didn’t. Some had read his book or seen him on television. Some had only heard of him after his death. Men missed work and took their boys out of school because they thought it was important. Families traveled from three states away.
Most people wore black. Many wore dress uniforms. His SEAL team was there, as were other SEALs and special-operations fighters from multiple generations. There were police officers and sheriff’s deputies and Texas Rangers. Veterans of World War II, some in wheelchairs, nodded to each other quietly as they made their way into the stadium. Some men had served in Korea, some in Vietnam, some in the first Gulf War. There were many servicemen who never served during a war and many people who had never served at all, but they all felt compelled to come.
Celebrities came, including Jerry Jones and Troy Aikman and Sarah Palin. Hundreds of motorcycle riders lined the outside of the field. Bagpipe players and drummers came from all over the state. A military choir stood at the ready the entire time.
A stage was set up in the middle of the football field. On the stage was a podium, some speakers, and a few microphone stands. At the front of the stage, amid a mound of flowers, were Kyle’s gun, his boots, his body armor, and his helmet.
Photos from Kyle’s life scrolled by on the gigantic screen overhead: a boy, getting a shotgun for Christmas. A young cowboy, riding a horse. A SEAL, clean-shaven and bright-eyed. In combat, scanning for targets. In the desert, flying a Texas flag. With his platoon, a fearsome image of American might. At home, hugging Taya, kissing the foot of his baby girl, holding the hand of his little boy.
His casket was draped with the American flag and placed on the giant star at the 50-yard line.
Randy Travis played “Whisper My Name,” and “Amazing Grace.” Joe Nichols played “The Impossible.” Kyle’s friend Scott Brown played a song called “Valor.” The public heard stories about what Kyle was like as a little boy. What he was like in training. What he was like at war. What he was like as a friend and business partner. Some people talked about the times they saw him cry. Fellow SEALs told stories about his resolve, his humor, his bravery. There were tales of his compassion, his intelligence, his dedication to God.
“Though we feel sadness and loss,” one of his former commanders said, “know this: legends never die. Chris Kyle is not gone. Chris Kyle is everywhere. He is the fabric of the freedom that blessed the people of this great nation. He is forever embodied in the strength and tenacity of the SEAL teams, where his courageous path will be followed and his memory is enshrined as SEALs continue to ruthlessly hunt down and destroy America’s enemies.”
Taya stood strong, surrounded by her husband’s SEAL brothers, and told the world about their love.
“God knew it would take the toughest and softest-hearted man on earth to get a hardheaded, cynical, hard-loving woman like me to see what God needed me to see, and he chose you for the job,” she said, her cracking voice filling the stadium. “He chose well.”
When the ceremony ended, uniformed pallbearers carried out the casket to the sounds of mournful bagpipes. Taya walked behind them with her children, hand in hand.
The next day, the casket was driven to Austin. There was a procession nearly 200 miles long—almost certainly the longest in American history. People lined the road in every town, waving flags and saluting. American flags were draped over every single bridge on I-35 between the Kyle home in Midlothian and the state capital.
PEOPLE WILL TELL STORIES ABOUT CHRIS KYLE for generations to come. Tales of his feats in battle, and of his antics and noble deeds, will probably swell. In a hundred years, people won’t know which stories are completely true and which were embellished over time. And, in the end, it may not matter too much, because people believe in legends for all their own reasons.
Since her husband’s death, Taya has been overwhelmed by the number of veterans who want to tell her that Chris Kyle saved their lives. A man with a 2-year-old girl wept recently as he explained that his daughter would not have been born had it not been for Chris Kyle rescuing him in Iraq. Years from now, men will still be telling stories about the moments when they were seconds or inches from death, when they thought it was all over—only to have a Chris Kyle bullet fly from the heavens and take out their enemies. They’ll tell their grandchildren to thank Chris Kyle in their prayers.
Because his legend is so large, because he personally protected so many people, there will surely be men who think they were saved by Kyle but owe their lives to a different sniper or to another serviceman. Of course, there will be no way to know for sure. Kyle credited his SEAL brothers any chance he could, but he also knew that he was an American hero, and he knew the complications that came with it.
During the interview in which he discussed the gas station incident, he didn’t say where it happened. Most versions of the story have him in Cleburne, not far from Fort Worth. The Cleburne police chief says that if such an incident did happen, it wasn’t in his town. Every other chief of police along Highway 67 says the same thing. Public information requests produced no police reports, no coroner reports, nothing from the Texas Rangers or the Department of Public Safety. I stopped at every gas station along 67, Business 67 in Cleburne, and 10 miles in either direction. Nobody had heard of anything like that happening.
A lot of people will believe that, because there are no public documents or witnesses to corroborate his story, Kyle must have been lying. But why would he lie? He was already one of the most decorated veterans of the Iraq war. Tales of his heroism on the battlefield were already lore in every branch of the armed forces.
People who never met Kyle will think there must have been too much pressure on him, a war hero who thought he might seem purposeless if he wasn’t killing bad guys. Conspiracy theorists will wonder if maybe every part of his life story—his incredible kills, his heroic tales of bravery in the face of death—was concocted by the propaganda wing of the Pentagon.
And, of course, other people—probably most people—will believe the story, because it was about Chris Kyle. He was one of the few men in the entire world capable of such a feat. He was one of the only people who might have had the connections to make something like that disappear—he did work regularly with the CIA. People will believe it because Chris Kyle was incredible, the most celebrated war hero of our time, a true American hero in every sense of the word. They’ll believe this story because there are already so many verified stories of his lethal abilities and astonishing valor, stories of him hanging out with presidents, and ribbing governors, and knocking out former football stars and billionaires and cocky frat boys.
They’ll believe it because Chris Kyle is already a legend, and sometimes we need to believe in legends.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of the story in Mooney’s eBook: “The Life and Legend of Chris Kyle: American Sniper, Navy Seal."