DALLAS, Texas — A generation of soldiers has served grueling tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq since the 9/11 attacks, but few soldiers have gripped the country’s conscience in the way Chris Kyle has.
In the autobiography that inspired the blockbuster film, “American Sniper,” Kyle wrote that his work on Iraqi battlefields earned him the nickname, “Legend.”
That’s what those fighting with Kyle called him. His enemies used another nickname. They dubbed him “al-Shaitan Ramad,” or the Devil of Ramadi, indicating the fear a man can instill in his foes when he’s capable of taking out a target from a distance of almost 1.2 miles.
Of course, he wasn’t the only sniper engaged in those epic battles of the Iraq War, but the legend of Chris Kyle resonates with a wide American audience.
Not only did his autobiography spend weeks on various bestseller lists, but the eponymous Clint Eastwood-directed film, which has earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture, has already shattered the box-office record for a war movie, previously held by “Saving Private Ryan.”
Man behind legend
Despite all the talk of war’s complications, Kyle’s view of the Iraq War was unapologetically simplistic.
“I wanted to go to war. I signed up to protect this country. I do not choose the wars. It happens that I love to fight,” he wrote in his autobiography.
After completing four tours of duty in Iraq with at least 160 confirmed sniper kills, Kyle said he never had regrets about plying his deadly trade. Even if he had to take out a woman cradling a toddler — as he reportedly did on his first sniper assignment — he had no qualms pulling the trigger if it saved the lives of the Marines who he was charged with protecting.
“It was my duty to shoot and I don’t regret it,” Kyle wrote in his book. “After the first kill, the others come easy. I don’t have to psych myself up, or do anything special mentally.”
As a Navy SEAL, Kyle fought in some of the Iraq War’s most vicious battles, including Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadr City, and while 160 was his tally of confirmed kills, he had 95 probable kills that couldn’t be verified.
His reputation for taking out insurgents resulted in an $80,000 bounty being placed on his head during the Iraq War.
One of thousands
Kyle’s autobiography, which he wrote with the help of authors Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, was published eight months after SEAL Team Six executed the historic operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
That historic operation spurred fascination with the inner workings and personalities that make up one of the U.S. military’s most secret and elite forces, yet many military veterans are leery of all the attention Kyle has received.
Kyle, they say, was one of tens of thousands of soldiers who served heroically in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You remove Chris Kyle from the story, there’s 20,000 other heroes that you can put in there,” said CNN global affairs analyst James Reese, who runs Tiger Swan, a security consulting firm founded by ex-members of the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force.
Reese, who himself was a sniper and a Delta Force commander during battles in Fallujah, said special forces operators carry a mystique that appeals to Americans who’ve never served in the military.
“They are very dynamic,” Reese said. “People are drawn to them. They are American heroes. But they’re all American heroes.”
But there is a side to Kyle that’s overlooked. It’s left out of the book and movie, but a series of now-debunked stories have served only to make Kyle’s legend larger.
In his autobiography, Kyle wrote that at a funeral for a fellow Navy SEAL there was a celebrity whom he called “Scruff Face,” whom he later identified as former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Kyle claimed in his book that Ventura told him that the SEALs “deserve to lose a few” in the wars and then “I laid him out.”
Ventura said the incident never happened and sued Kyle for defamation. Last year, a jury ordered Kyle’s estate to pay Ventura nearly $2 million. The verdict is being appealed.
This is just one story in a collection of outlandish tales that Kyle has reportedly repeated often.
Kyle bragged about traveling into New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina with a fellow sniper and shooting at least 30 looters from the roof of the Superdome. There’s no evidence anything of the sort ever occurred.
And then there’s the story Kyle told of how he killed two men who tried to carjack him while he was stopped at a gas station along a rural highway southwest of Dallas. When police arrived to investigate and ran his driver’s license, Kyle said, they received a phone number for someone at the Department of Defense. The story ends with the police officers letting Kyle drive away.
‘No way to get an answer’
Kyle told the gas station story to Michael Mooney, a writer for D Magazine who was working on a profile. Mooney spent months trying to verify the story, he said.
He interviewed people at every gas station along the stretch of highway where the shooting allegedly happened. He spoke with state and local law enforcement officials in three counties. Nobody had ever heard of the incident.
“He was a hero. He was the most celebrated war hero of our time,” Mooney said. “It’s really hard to know what to think. We don’t know. The fact is he was killed and there’s no way to get an answer from him now.”
CNN asked Kyle’s wife, Taya, to shed light on why her husband told these stories, but she declined the interview request. Her spokesperson said she was not available to speak about the incidents.
At Kyle’s funeral, which, befitting the grandeur of his legend, was held in the Dallas Cowboys’ massive football stadium, Taya Kyle did not shy away from her husband’s darker side.
“I don’t need to romanticize Chris because our reality is messy, passionate, full of every extreme emotion known to man, including fear, compassion, anger and pain,” she said.
A softer side as well
Despite his well-reported shortcomings, it’s difficult to overlook his life after the Navy and how he touched and inspired so many people.
While he was working to launch a security company — Craft International, whose motto is, “Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems” — Kyle dedicated much time to helping fellow veterans with mental health issues transition back to normal life after the battlefield.
The struggle consumed him in many ways.
“War one day; peace the next,” Kyle wrote in his book.
It’s also the work that led to his February 2, 2013, death. Kyle had taken veterans Chad Littlefield and Eddie Ray Routh to the firing range that day. A hunting guide would later find Kyle and Littlefield dead. Routh was charged in their deaths, and opening arguments in his capital murder trial are slated to begin this week.
For many elite soldiers, the decision to leave the battlefield is an excruciating one. The sense of duty to protect fellow soldiers is a feeling that Kyle struggled to let go. There’s also a sense of glory and power that snipers find hard to walk away from.
“We’re trained to go out and kill people,” Chris Kyle wrote in his autobiography. “And then at the same time, we’re also being taught to think of ourselves as invincible bad asses. That’s a pretty potent combination.”