The blockbuster movie “American Sniper,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, has brought renewed attention to the story of the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history.
Chris Kyle has 160 confirmed kills under his belt from his time as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq. The actual number of people he killed is likely even higher — Kyle claimed he killed 255 people. (Confirmed kills must be verified by witnesses.)
“American Sniper” had a huge opening weekend at the box office, netting $US90.2 million. The movie, which is based on Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, has been nominated for six Oscars, including best picture.
Kyle died in 2013 after being shot by a soldier suffering from PTSD.
The story behind Kyle’s military career and subsequent return to the U.S. is a bit more muddled and complex than what’s shown in the movie, which has been the subject of a debate about whether the film overly glorifies Kyle and the horrors of war.
Kyle was born in Texas to a church deacon and a Sunday school teacher, according to a 2013 profile of him in D Magazine. His father moved around a lot for work, so he grew up in different areas of the state.
His upbringing in Texas taught him to love guns. He went hunting with his father and brother and liked to practice his shot with a BB gun.
In high school, Kyle earned himself a reputation as a defender of his friends — he was willing to start a fight if it meant sticking up for someone else.
After high school, he attended Tarleton State University in Texas for two years before enlisting in the Navy and undergoing SEAL training.
Shortly after marrying, Kyle deployed to Iraq and proved his skills as a sniper.
His first kill was in Nasiriya, Iraq in 2003. He shot a woman who was preparing to throw a grenade at approaching Marines.
“The first time you’re killing somebody, you’re not even sure you can do it,” Kyle said in an interview with Time. “You think you can, but you never know until you’re actually put in that position and you do it.”
In one legendary shot later in his career, he hit an insurgent target who was 1.2 miles away. Using his scope, he spotted the insurgent on the roof of a building and took him out.
In an interview with Lester Holt on the Today show, Kyle called it a “lucky shot.”
Kyle saw the killing he did as a necessary part of protecting American troops. He has said that he never regretted pulling the trigger because he viewed it as “us” or “them” scenario — either he takes out someone he sees as a threat, or that person takes out American troops.
In his interviews for the D Magazine profile, Kyle said: “You don’t think of the people you kill as people. 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 … That part is easy. I definitely don’t have any regrets about that.”
He started earning a dangerous reputation among the insurgents, who called him the “devil of Ramadi” (one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq where Kyle served) and put a bounty on his head.
“It gave me pride, knowing I was doing my job enough to get in the minds of the terrorists and make them fearful of me,” he told Holt.
Kyle survived six IED attack and three gunshot wounds in four tours of duty in Iraq before he retired in 2009. His wife gave Kyle what he interpreted as an ultimatum — Taya wanted him to return home to his family and two young children he hardly knew, or the marriage would be over.
Kyle, like many veterans, had trouble adjusting to civilian life after he returned home.
The hardest part about coming home was missing his “boys” and missing “being around them in the action,” he told D Magazine.
“That’s your whole life, every day for years,” he said. “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. … 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 also found that much of the American public didn’t understand and couldn’t relate to the realities of war.
“For the most part, the public is very soft,” he told Time. “You live in a dream world. You have no idea what goes on on the other side of the world, the harsh realities that these people are doing to themselves and then to our guys. And there are certain things that need to be done to take care of [American troops].”
Kyle eventually found a purpose in being a father and helping veterans and civilians. He started Craft International, a defence contracting company, and took veterans to shooting ranges as a sort of therapy.
It was during one of these sessions that Kyle was killed.
A woman who lived near Kyle had heard of how he met with veterans after they returned home for war, and she called him one day to ask if he could help her son, who was suffering from mental illness and might have been suicidal. So Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield agreed to take the 25-year-old Marine to the shooting range to blow off steam, according to D Magazine.
Eddie Ray Routh shot and killed both Kyle and Littlefield. He is now facing trial for their murders.
Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle in the film adaptation of his autobiography, got Kyle’s blessing to make the movie shortly before he died.
The film’s release started a debate about how accurate Kyle’s story is.
He claimed in his book, without naming names, that he punched former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura at a bar after Ventura insulted Navy SEALs. Last year, a jury awarded Ventura $US1.8 million in damages for the passage in Kyle’s book that they deemed libelous.
Another story that’s part of Kyle’s legend couldn’t be verified by reporters. Kyle had reportedly told some people that shortly after he got back from Iraq, he killed two men at a Texas gas station when they tried to carjack him.
When a reporter asked him if the story was true, Kyle said it was. But when news outlets went looking for documentation of the incident, they couldn’t find it.
But Cooper has argued that the film is meant to make people pay attention to the plight of veterans — nothing more.
“[American Sniper] is not a political discussion about war,” Cooper told The Daily Beast. “It’s a discussion about the reality. And the reality is that people are coming home, and we have to take care of them.”
Former Navy SEAL Sniper instructor Brandon Webb, who served on SEAL Team 3 with Kyle, wrote that “Chris Kyle was a human being, a Texan, Navy SEAL, father, husband, and a hero to many at a time when we need all the heroes we can get. I knew him to be a good person, regardless of all the bulls— floating around in the media.”
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