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He Shot 160... and Died Because He Cared

He Shot 160... and Died Because He Cared

By Toby Harnden - February 14, 2013

 

Death without mercy in a distant place defined Chris Kyle, but it was kindness that killed him in his native Texas. The most lethal sniper in American military history, he was credited with 160 confirmed kills in places such as Falluja and Baghdad; the true body count was perhaps as high as 255. Able to end lives without a flicker of emotion in Iraq, Kyle lost his own last weekend at a shooting range because he took pity on a stranger.

It was a peculiar and tragic final act to the life of a man who had made killing his business. In the public reaction to his death, attention has focused on the singular skills of the sniper, which remain an object of fascination, rather than on the scars borne by members of the military stretched thin by the wars of the past dozen years and which Kyle was dedicated to healing.

Although they had attended the same school in Midlothian, Texas, Kyle did not know Eddie Ray Routh, his killer. Kyle, 38, had spent a decade as a US Navy Seal. He was a titan even within a warrior elite who had earned the sobriquet al-Shaitan Ramadi — “the devil of Ramadi” — among Iraqi insurgents and a $20,000 (£12,600) bounty on his head after four tours in Iraq. Routh, 13 years his junior, had been an armourer in the US Marine Corps Reserve who had seen little, if any, combat during his four years of service.

It was Routh’s mother Jodi who had asked the beefy, bearded but softly spoken Kyle to help her son, who had twice been admitted to a local psychiatric hospital and had told police he had been affected by his experiences of war.

Kyle, the son of a church deacon and raised on a ranch, was a committed Christian who never hesitated when a fellow veteran was in need. All the proceeds of his 2012 autobiography American Sniper — which sold 800,000 copies and could have made him a rich man — went to the families of comrades who, as he put it to me when I interviewed him last year, he “could not save”.

His brother was a marine and Kyle had spent so much of his time in Iraq providing protection for marines that he was particularly drawn to assisting veterans from the corps. “I kind of broke the code of silence when I came out and wrote the book,” he told me. “The only way I could justify it was the money going back to the family members of the guys I lost.

“It created a firestorm, but I’ve used it to stand on my platform and try to raise the awareness for the vets so they get taken better care of and our active duty members get the recognition. Instead of just saying thanks, I want people to show their thanks. They’ve got to step forward.”

Kyle was always one to step forward; he gave fellow veterans his time as well as his money — and ultimately his life.

Last Saturday morning the former Seal, with his friend Chad Littlefield, a fellow veteran and gym companion, drove his black Ford pick-up to Lancaster, a suburb of Dallas, to take Routh out for the day. By lunchtime the three men were heading to Rough Creek Lodge, where Kyle had designed his own shooting range where he trained military and police personnel or spent time with other veterans.

The three men arrived at the 11,000-acre lodge at about 3.15pm and drove up to the remote range. At about 5pm, a hunting guide stumbled on a scene of carnage. Kyle and Littlefield lay dead from multiple gunshot wounds fired from a semi-automatic pistol at close range. A number of firearms lay around them. Routh and the pick-up were gone.

Some 45 minutes later Routh pulled up in the truck at the house of his sister Laura Blevins and her husband Gaines. He told them “he’d traded his soul for a new truck and that he murdered two people”, Gaines Blevins later told police. “He said they were out shooting target practice and he couldn’t trust them so he killed them before they could kill him.”

When the couple told him to turn himself in, Routh fled, saying he was going to escape to Oklahoma. Laura Blevins phoned 911. “I’m terrified for my life because I don’t know if he’s going to come back here,” she said breathlessly in a recording of the call released by the police. She added: “He’s all crazy. He’s f****** psychotic.”

Police arrested Routh in the stolen truck at 9pm after a brief chase. He has been charged with murder.

It remains unclear how much Kyle had known about just how disturbed Routh was. Last May Jodi Routh had reported the theft of nine bottles of pills and told police that her son was involved. In September he was admitted to the local psychiatric hospital after he threatened to kill his family and himself.

The authorities had found Routh “emotional and crying”, walking nearby with no shirt and no shoes and smelling of alcohol. He had told them he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Eddie stated he was hurting and that his family does not understand what he has been through,” a police report said.

Last month Routh was again taken to the hospital after a woman called the police and said she feared for his safety. He had been released after a fortnight as an in-patient just four days before the fateful visit to the shooting range with Kyle and Littlefield.

Kyle always said that if he had not been a Seal he would have been a cowboy. He got his first rifle when he was seven or eight and hunted deer, turkey, doves and quail. While still at school he learnt to break horses and ride bulls, ending up with pins in his wrists after being flipped over by a bronco.

The former ranch hand was a natural marksman, but being a sniper was about mental toughness as well as skill with a weapon. His first victim in Iraq was a woman, who stepped out of a doorway with a child by her side. As a marine patrol approached she pulled a grenade from her clothing. “Take a shot!” he was ordered when he hesitated for a split second. “Shoot!” He fired, killing her instantly.

Such an incident would have haunted many soldiers. But Kyle was able to rationalise what he had done. “It was my duty to shoot and I don’t regret it,” he wrote later. “The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn’t take any marines with her . . . I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job.”

Eric Davis, who had been Kyle’s instructor at Seal sniper school, said of his former pupil: “I was amazed he was able to compartmentalise the psychological aspects of what he had to do. I don’t care how tough you are — that’s a lot of people to have killed. But every shot was carefully measured.”

One of Kyle’s most celebrated shots took place on the banks of the Euphrates, west of Falluja, in 2004. Three insurgents were 1.2 miles away — well beyond the usual range of Kyle’s Lapua .338 rifle. Marines were laughing at him as he took aim, telling him he could never reach them. But Kyle did a quick distance and elevation calculation and fired.

“The moon, Earth and stars aligned,” he later wrote. “God blew on the bullet and I gut-shot the jackass.”

On another occasion Kyle watched two insurgents on a moped drop an explosive device in a pothole. He waited until they were 150 yards away before firing. The single bullet went through the first and into the second, killing them both. “Two guys with one shot,” Kyle wrote. “The taxpayer got good bang for his buck on that one.”

It was during his final tour in 2008 that he came closest to death when one bullet hit him in the helmet and another in the back plate of his body armour. “I have a guardian angel, but I’m not superhuman and I can die,” he later reflected.

Kyle opted for retirement so he could spend more time with his wife Taya and their young son — whom he had taught to shoot at the age of two — and daughter. “If you die, it will wreck all our lives,” Taya had told him.

Eddie Ray Routh shot Kyle last weekend at a firing range Ryan Zinke, a retired commander who led US special forces in Iraq when Kyle was in Falluja in 2004, last spoke to him a week before his death: “Chris looked at his life and made a choice for family. That was a reflection of him. He loved his country, he did his duty and after all those combat tours he knew he had to make a change.”

Leaving the Seals felt like “plunging down a mineshaft”, Kyle wrote. He briefly succumbed to depression and would drink all day. Wrecking his truck one night was the message he needed to “get my head back straight”. Helping others was a way of doing that.

“I like to take vets hunting, shooting on a range or just hanging out telling stories and drinking beer,” he told me. “As far as the fascination with the sniping, I wish more people, instead of being fascinated over the actual kills, would be fascinated by the number of lives saved by those kills.”

Like many Texans, Kyle grew up with guns and was comfortable with them. Fellow Seals say shooting could help a PTSD sufferer.

“Because of Hollywood and TV, people believe that shooting a gun is an aggressive act,” said Rorke Denver, who was one of the serving Seals who starred in the 2012 film Act of Valor and is author of the upcoming book Damn Few: Making the Modern Seal Warrior.

“It’s quite the opposite. You’ve got to control your breathing, you’ve got to control your heart rate, you’ve got to pay attention to your target and have a smooth trigger squeeze.

“If you’re doing it right, you’re calming yourself down, not amping yourself up. For me, it makes sense that it could be a therapeutic process.”

According to recent figures, 22 American veterans take their own lives each day. In the past decade the US Department of Veterans Affairs has treated more than 200,000 troops who have been in Iraq and Afghanistan for PTSD.

In a statement the director of Kyle’s charity said his death had underlined the foundation’s “vigilant passion to help combat veterans struggling with PTSD” and that plans to fight the disorder would be announced after Kyle’s memorial service at the 80,000-seat Dallas Cowboys stadium tomorrow.

Speaking of Routh, Denver said: “There are very real issues for those that have been in the fight after a decade-plus of conflict. Most people who come back will be fine, but there’ll be those sad few that really will have a hard time and will need help.

“And if that help is not provided then we’re going to have some catastrophic results.”

He added: “The fact that Chris did not pay the price on the battlefield but when he was trying to help somebody just has this element of Shakespearean tragedy to it.” 

 

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times. 

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