RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now, the story of a fallen hero. Chris Kyle was known as one of the best snipers in the history of the American military. In February, the former Navy SEAL was shot and killed, but his death did not come on the battlefield. It happened at home in Texas, at the hands of another veteran, a former Marine named Eddie Ray Routh. In the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine, Nicholas Schmidle traces the intersecting paths of these two men.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When Chris Kyle returned from war and word of this accomplishments spread, he became a minor celebrity. There were appearances on national TV. Eventually, he got a book deal. But Schmidle says all of that attention was not enough to completely erase the emotional wounds of war.
NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: I have never seen any diagnosis of Chris Kyle having PTSD, but Chris Kyle admits that you can't go to war and come back, having seen people killed and maimed and all this, and not have some stress. We spoke to a psychiatrist who said that a sniper's world is one of magnification, and each and every time that he killed someone, he doesn't just see that individual fall from several hundred meters away. He actually watches his bullet enter the head. And so Chris Kyle, according to his book, has 160 confirmed kills. When they first wrote the book - he wrote the book with two ghost writers - they put the number at 255, and the Pentagon essentially edited it down to 160. You know, watching that happen and doing that 160 times is a tremendous amount of magnified death to witness.
GREENE: He - in both the book and in other publications that have been written about him - he tells some stories that you had some questions about, their validity.
SCHMIDLE: He does. He - I mean, how do you live within the myth that's been created about you, when your called the most lethal sniper in the history of the U.S. military? And there are two ways, and I guess one of them is to do what he would later do, which is to help veterans. And the other one is to kind of just live within that. There were a number of stories that grew up around Chris.
So, according to Chris Kyle in a story that he told to others and others shared with me, Chris Kyle was approached by two car-jackers in January of 2010 at a gas station southwest of Dallas, and they approached him and they asked for his car. And Chris Kyle, apparently, said yes, and reached into the holster on his torso and pulled out a Colt 1911 pistol and proceeded to spin and shoot both of these car-jackers.
And the way the story is told is that when the police showed up, Chris Kyle was leaning against his truck. And when they ran his license, a message came up that said: Contact the Department of Defense immediately. And on the other end of the line, there was, apparently, an operator who said that you're in the hands of the most lethal sniper in American history.
SCHMIDLE: There are a lot reasons to be very skeptical of that story.
GREENE: You talked to some of the neighboring sheriff's departments to try and get to the bottom of whether this might have happened or not.
SCHMIDLE: Well, first, we went through coroner's records, and we couldn't find anything there. So then we spoke to a number of sheriffs, and all of them said they'd never heard it, and that they could guarantee it didn't happen in their jurisdiction.
GREENE: And there were other tall tales that grew out of the legend of Chris Kyle. Still, it was hard to deny how much he did to help other veterans. Kyle started an organization to get them donated fitness equipment, and this family man, father of two children, was also a gifted mentor for troops struggling with the transition back to home life.
SCHMIDLE: He would take these post traumatic stress-affected young men and go hunting with them or just kind of hang out with them. And someone said he was just - he was a great battle buddy. And in late January, a woman who was a teacher at the elementary school where Chris Kyle's kids went stopped Chris in the parking lot and said that her son was having some major problems.
And she told him all about what her son, Eddie Ray Routh, was going through, and Chris promised that he would help him.
GREENE: Eddie Ray had come back. He also served in Iraq and had seen some awful, awful things.
SCHMIDLE: He had served in Iraq. He had been a guard in a prison, and then came back. And then after the earthquake in Haiti, he went and spent three months in Haiti. And this actually appears to be the turning point. And Eddie came back and said they trained me to shoot, but they didn't train me to pick dead bodies up off the beach, and they didn't train me to deal with dead babies and things like that.
GREENE: And he reached out. He went to VA hospitals. He got some help, but according to his family, not as much as they would have wanted him to get.
SCHMIDLE: The VA hospital in Dallas just kept giving him drugs, and the mother just tells these heart-wrenching stories of her begging them to keep her son in the hospital and them just saying, well, you know, ma'am, he came her on his own volition. He's an adult, and he was ready to go home. And so when the mother met Chris Kyle on Friday, January 25th, she asked if Chris could help her son. And Chris said: I'll do everything I can.
GREENE: She saw someone who might have been suffering from the same things as her son, who had maybe more means, his own health insurance, to get treatment for his own, but was reaching out for this guy, Chris Kyle, to help her son.
SCHMIDLE: Right, right. And then, on Saturday, February 2nd, Chris Kyle and his good buddy Chad Littlefield, came and picked up Eddie, and the two of them took Eddie to a gun range about 90 miles southwest of where they lived in Midlothian, Texas.
GREENE: This was just a few months ago. And this is - they were going to hang out and, you know, spend some time, and maybe this would be a kind of therapy.
SCHMIDLE: Right. And this is something that Chris had done many, many times before, tried to sort of use the gun range as a therapist office, if you will. So they got to the gun range, and shortly after they got there, Eddie turned one of the weapons on Chris and Chad Littlefield and shot both of them and killed both of them. He then took Chris Kyle's truck and drove to his sister's house.
And when he arrived, the sister said that he was just - he was incoherent. He was making no sense. He asked first the sister and her husband if they were in hell with him.
GREENE: And he told his sister that he had - he murdered two people.
SCHMIDLE: He told them. He said: I just killed two people at the gun range. I killed Chris and his friend. The sister encouraged him to turn himself in. The minute that he left, the sister called 911 and reported...
(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)
SCHMIDLE: He was arrested a few hours later, following a brief chase.
GREENE: And he is now awaiting trial and could face the death penalty in Texas.
SCHMIDLE: That's correct.
GREENE: Having delved so deeply into this story, can you help us make sense of it? I mean, you have two young men who fought for their country, who seemed to suffer from something, either PTSD or resembling it. They shared something, but their lives both now, effectively, over.
SCHMIDLE: Yeah. I mean, I guess, the takeaway is that you look at what's happened, you look at wars overseas over the course of the past 12 years, and while not everyone has come home with PTSD, certainly everyone has come home changed in some way. These wars have affected so many individuals around us, and particularly in a place like Texas.
It was a remarkable experience to realize just how many families have been affected, and the impact was something that certainly resonated with me.
GREENE: Nicholas Schmidle, thanks so much for coming in to talk about this.
SCHMIDLE: Thanks for having me on.
GREENE: His piece is called "In the Crosshairs," and it is in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.