American Cipher: 1 in 2.5 Million

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Erath County Sheriff’s Office / AP

Eddie Ray Routh, charged in the murder of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle and another vet.

You probably only learned over the weekend about only one of the more than 2.5 million U.S. military veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11. That would be Eddie Ray Routh, 25, a onetime Marine who allegedly shot and killed Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle and a second military veteran at a gun range south of Fort Worth on Saturday.

We need to be careful not to overlearn anything from this tragedy just yet. Routh allegedly killed Kyle, 38, and Chad Littlefield, 35, as Kyle was trying to ease Routh back into the civilian world.

Kyle’s killing makes for a compelling tale, which no doubt explains why it was the lead story on the Sunday evening newscasts of ABC and NBC, the two broadcast networks not carrying Super Bowl XLVII.

All the pieces fell neatly into place: Routh is unemployed, perhaps afflicted with PTSD, and his scraggly beard made for an arresting mug shot. His famous and handsome victim, Chris Kyle, wrote American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, which made the New York Times best-seller list last year. He was married, a father of two and spent a lot of time trying to help fellow veterans find their way back into American society.

“People look at Kyle’s death as tragic because he survived so much at war,” said Brock McNabb, who served as an Army mental-health worker in Iraq, “only to be killed in the middle of a philanthropic act in the middle of the country he loved so much.”

In an interview with TIME last year, Kyle said he was “not trying to glory myself.” Killing people at long range was his military mission. “The first time, you’re not even sure you can do it,” he said. “But I’m not over there looking at these people as people. I’m not wondering if he has a family. I’m just trying to keep my guys safe.” He had deployed four times to Iraq, where he was awarded a pair of Silver Stars for valor.

In his book, Kyle claimed to have killed more than 150 insurgents in Iraq. Pentagon officials said at the time of the book’s release that there is no formal census kept of sniper kills. But, like fellow Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, who wrote of the killing of Osama bin Laden, Kyle seemed ready to write of things that in previous wars had been kept secret. Military modesty, it seems, has become as much a relic as an M-1 carbine.

The killings raise a host of questions: Is the alleged killer a sociopath, simply eager to kill? To kill somebody famous? Did PTSD or some other malady drive him to shoot his two fellow veterans once they found themselves on a shooting range? Could he be a closet Islamist seeking revenge for the insurgents Kyle killed?

Routh has said nothing to suggest a motive. “I don’t know that we’ll ever know,” Captain Jason Upshaw of the Erath County sheriff’s office said. “He’s the only one that knows that.” Routh is the only surviving witness to the killings.

Erath County Sheriff Tommy Bryant said Routh “may have been suffering from some type of mental illness from being in the military himself.” The Pentagon said Routh had been a corporal in the Marines from 2006 to 2010 and deployed to Iraq in 2007–08 and Haiti in 2010.

“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 Afghanistan and Iraq and has had his own battles with mental-health issues since returning to the U.S.

Post-9/11 veterans are already grumbling that the media is rushing to blame the murders on Routh’s military service or PTSD or both. If the past weekend were average, there were more than 50 murders by firearms across the country. Most of them were not carried out by veterans or vets suffering from 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. “And second, it’s important to remember that combat PTSD is complex. Those who struggle with PTSD are far more likely to harm themselves than others. Likewise, having PTSD does not signify a propensity to commit murder. There is no empirical correlation, other than what Hollywood portrays.”

His reference to Hollywood fits. The same rush to judgment happened following the Vietnam War, when crimes committed by a relatively few veterans of that conflict were used to tar an entire generation. Movies like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver drilled into the public’s mind that many troops who served in Southeast Asia in the late 1960s and early 1970s were mentally deranged, if not downright dangerous.

For millions of Americans of draft age who dodged serving in Vietnam, the films served as after-the-fact justification for their inactions and morphed from celluloid to certitude.

The nation tarnished an entire generation that carried out the orders they’d been given. It’d be a crime of the first order to do so again.