The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reported last year that nearly 1 in 3 vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq treated at VA hospitals and clinics has suffered from some type of posttraumatic stress. Routh was one of those, according to his family. His four-year Marine stint included a standard seven-month Marine tour in Iraq in 2007–08 as well as a 2010 deployment to Haiti. Back home, he was jobless except for occasional carpentry work. He was in and out of VA facilities over a two-year period, seeking to deal with his worsening mental health, and spent 15 days in jail after a drunk-driving arrest.
In September, police in his hometown of Lancaster, Texas, apprehended him when he allegedly threatened to kill his parents and himself after his father Raymond threatened to sell his gun. The cops found Routh shoeless, shirtless and drunk. He told them that “he was hurting and that his family does not understand what he has been through.”
Routh’s mother Jodi reached out to Kyle for help. There was a link between the famous sniper and her troubled son beyond their military service. They had attended the same high school, 14 years apart, in the Dallas suburb of Midlothian. Kyle, friends say, could never say no to a plea for assistance, especially from the worried mom of a troubled veteran.
So Kyle telephoned Routh and invited him to go shooting with him and Littlefield, 35. The trio pulled into the range, in a remote part of the Rough Creek Lodge southwest of Fort Worth, midafternoon on Feb. 2. Precisely what happened next remains unknown. Routh is the only surviving witness, and he isn’t talking to anyone, including his family and court-appointed lawyer. Police say Routh killed both men with a semiautomatic handgun shortly after the three arrived. Two hours later, a hunting guide discovered the pair “lying on the ground, covered in blood,” according to Routh’s arrest warrant.
Routh then allegedly fled the scene in Kyle’s big-tired black Ford F-350, a handsome pickup that can cost more than $40,000. Shortly before he was captured, he told his sister and brother-in-law that he had killed the two and “traded his soul for a new truck,” according to an arrest affidavit. In a search of his house, police recovered the handgun they believe Routh used.
The Erath County sheriff said “the suspect may have been suffering from some kind of mental illness from being in the military.” (Routh in fact remains a member of the Marine Reserve and could be called back to active duty.) The day following the killings, jailers fired a stun gun at Routh after he became aggressive while in solitary confinement. They restrained him and put him under a suicide watch. He is being held on two murder charges and a $3 million bond.
Some say the VA and the military should have done more. “This simply further highlights the dangers of an inadequate treatment system that continues to cost service members, both active and retired, their lives,” says Rob Kumpf, who served with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and has suffered from PTSD since.
But experts say such violent outbursts are impossible to predict. And a 2012 study found that many things beyond PTSD can set off a troubled vet. “When you hear about veterans committing acts of violence, many people assume that posttraumatic stress disorder or combat exposure are to blame,” says a co-author of the study, Eric B. Elbogen of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Medicine. The survey of 1,388 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq found that poverty led to more reports of aggression than PTSD. Substance abuse and a criminal record increase the chances of trouble. Positive social interactions and jobs tamp down the likelihood of violence.
Post-9/11 veterans are already concerned about a rush to pin the crime on so far unconfirmed reports of Routh’s PTSD. “We don’t actually know the alleged murderer’s mental state or background,” cautions Brandon Friedman, who served as a rifle-platoon leader and executive officer with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Having PTSD does not signify a propensity to commit murder. There is no empirical correlation, other than what Hollywood portrays.”
Still, the tragedy will be difficult to erase from the public’s subconscious.
Denver, the ex-SEAL, tells himself that his friend’s final moments were peaceful. “I’m sure Chris, in that instant, had utter confidence that with another veteran, he was in a safe place and doing right by what appears to be a very troubled young man,” he says. “That’s what makes it triply sad.”
—with reporting by Belinda Luscombe/New York