Chris Kyle had survived four tours in Iraq as a Navy SEAL sniper, shooting at his targets with enemies all around. At the Glen Rose, Texas, gun range on Feb. 2, there weren’t supposed to be any enemies—just Kyle, his friend and fellow veteran Chad Littlefield and a 25-year-old ex-Marine named Eddie Ray Routh.
Kyle, 38, was among the military’s most accomplished sharpshooters and had become a best-selling author by writing about his time in combat. He had planned the target-practice outing as a way to help Routh as he had helped other troubled soldiers. But it ended, according to the sheriff, with Kyle and Littlefield both shot dead by Routh.
The tragedy of those killings provoked sadness and anger across the U.S., especially in military communities, where Kyle’s work on behalf of ailing vets was widely admired. He had used their common experience as soldiers to connect. He’d pal around with them while they’d shoot. “Chris died doing what filled his heart with passion—serving soldiers struggling with the fight to overcome PTSD,” says Travis Cox, a former Marine sniper and Kyle’s business partner in a security firm.
(VIDEO: 10 Questions with American Sniper, Chris Kyle)
There are many questions: Why would a Marine return home only to murder one of his own? How troubled was Routh? And with all that the U.S. military and Department of Veterans Affairs are doing to try to ensure the troops’ mental health, how could he fall so spectacularly through the cracks? Was Routh, in fact, suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, and will this unfairly tie PTSD with violent aggression in the public mind?
None of those address the central mystery. Kyle was a killer who became a healer. How could he so suddenly be transformed again, into a victim?
Chris Kyle, the son of a church deacon, grew up in Texas—mostly in a saddle. He couldn’t decide whether to become a cowboy or a soldier. He eventually became a Navy SEAL even though he hated the water. “If I see a puddle,” he told Time in an extensive interview, “I will walk around it.” But Kyle’s backwoods training—he loved hunting, fishing and the outdoors—made him an ideal special operator for the military.
Although his first gun was a Daisy BB model, Kyle’s weapons grew as he did. By the time he earned the nickname the Devil of Ramadi for his deadly work in that Iraqi city, Kyle was 6 ft. 2 in. and 220 lb. (188 cm, 100 kg), with a very big rifle. “On my deployments, the .300 Winchester Magnum did become my favorite,” he said. “If the shot was a thousand yards or more, I would take my .300 Win Mag.”
His mission in Iraq was simple: provide what the military calls overwatch protection so the Marines under his gaze could do their jobs without fear of insurgent ambushes. Kyle, who was credited with 160 confirmed kills, conceded he was in the right place at the right time to become perhaps the world’s greatest sniper. “I’m not the greatest shot there is,” he remarked. “I just happened to be the one that was put in there, got lucky enough to see plenty of combat and been able to take the shots.”
Unlike most troops, the goal of snipers is one shot, one kill. They work stealthily, often in pairs, one spotting for the other. “You just view these guys as the terrorists that they are,” he said. “So you’re not really viewing them as a person. They’re out there, they’re bad people, and you just take them out and you don’t think twice about it.”
But Kyle viewed the troops he served with as people—his people—and felt their pain when they went home less than whole. He resolved to do what he could to help.