The ‘unverifiable’ legacy of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American history


Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL and author of the book “American Sniper,” poses in Midlothian, Tex., in 2012. (Paul Moseley/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram via AP)

Chris Kyle, musclebound, grim-faced and lethal, liked to tell stories.

Before his murder in 2013 at 38, the so-called deadliest sniper in American history nurtured a comic book narrative. He was the “true American badass,” as one journalist called him, who dipped, wore big boots and affected an aw-shucks Texas swagger. With 160 confirmed kills under his belt and a beautiful family behind him, he became the stuff of military legend. He wrote a best-selling book. Statues were erected. Millions made.

And then there were his stories — some of which smelled fishy. “There were a lot of things he told people that are really unverifiable,” journalist Michael J. Mooney, who wrote a book on Kyle, told The Washington Post.

Like the one about how he and a bud went down to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and picked off dozens of bad guys. Or the one in which he took on two armed Texans bent on stealing his truck and shot them both dead. Or the one he told about former Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

It’s a story that Ventura said was false. A Minnesota jury, which on Tuesday awarded Ventura $1.8 million in damages from Kyle’s estate after deliberating for six days, agreed.

The details of the defamatory story: Kyle punched Ventura out at a bar in 2006 after Ventura criticized the Iraq War and said the SEALs “deserve to lose a few.”

In the book, he didn’t mention Ventura by name — he referred to a “Scruff Face.”

“Scruff bowed up again,” Kyle claimed in “American Sniper.” “This time he swung. Being level-headed and calm can last only so long. I laid him out. Tables flew. Stuff happened. Scruff Face ended up on the floor. I left. Quickly. I have no way of knowing for sure, but rumor has it he showed up at [a SEAL] graduation with a black eye.”

He identified “Mr. Scruff Face” as Ventura in a later interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News and in an additional radio segment. “He told us we were killing innocent people over there, men, women, children, that we were all murderers,” Kyle, wearing a Punisher baseball hat, told a Sirius XM talk show. He added: “Then he said we deserved to lose a few guys. … I punched him in the face. Jesse Ventura, he’s an older guy. … He went down … He fell out of his wheelchair.”

After the verdict, Ventura expressed a mixture of satisfaction and remorse in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I am overjoyed that my reputation was restored,” said the former wrestler, who served in an earlier iteration of the Navy SEALs in the 1970s. “But the emotion is [about] what’s been taken from me. I can’t go to … SEAL reunions anymore because that was the place I always felt safe and who will be next to throw me under the bus? I’d have to spend my time looking over my shoulder.”

Kyle was an exceptional soldier — a man others simply referred to as “The Legend.” But the verdict laid bare a separate side of him: his bravado.

His writing is drenched in braggadocio. “People ask me all the time, ‘How many people have you killed?’” he wrote in “American Sniper.” “My standard response is, ‘Does the answer make me less, or more, of a man? The number is not important to me. I only wish I had killed more. … The Navy credits me with more kills as a sniper than any other American service member, past or present. I guess that’s true.”

What was less sure, however, were some of the anecdotes he told after he left the SEALs in 2009 and returned to Texas. “After his incredible military career, he felt such high pressure to maintain his image,” Mooney told The Post. One way he did this was bar fights, pinning it on “pent-up aggression.” He told a story in his book of one time he and a pal pummeled a few “wannabe UFC fighters” in a bar.

“I would rather get my ass beat than look like a p—y in front of my boys,” he wrote.

That sense of superhuman toughness perhaps led him to tell stories reporters couldn’t confirm. One involved a cold January morning at a gas station southwest of Dallas. Two armed men, he said, approached him and told him to hand over the keys to his black F350. “I told them I would get them the keys,” he told Mooney. “I told them they were in the truck and to just let me reach in.” Kyle then claimed he reached into the car, pulled out a gun and, shooting under his armpit, killed both men. “It’s true,” he said.

But was it? Reporters, including the New Yorker’s Nicholas Schmidle, called some of the nearby county sheriffs and none of them knew of it. “I went to every single gas station [nearby],” Mooney explained. “I talked to every single law enforcement out there, all the Texas rangers — and there’s no evidence whatsoever.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram had no better luck. “We checked with the medical examiner’s office, which reported no such deaths in Cleburne in January 2009.”

Years after those alleged killings, Kyle had another story to tell. This one referred to the vacuum of authority in New Orleans following Katrina, when the city slipped into chaos. According to the New Yorker and several military publications, Kyle and a few other SEALs drank late in San Diego late one night in early 2012. “The SEALs began telling stories, and Kyle offered a shocking one,” the New Yorker reported. “…He and another sniper traveled to New Orleans, set up on top of the Superdome, and proceed to shoot dozens of armed residents who were contributing to the chaos.” The magazine said one conversation participant said Kyle “claimed to have shot thirty men on his own,” while another said Kyle and the other killed 30 between them.

When the New Yorker’s Schmidle called the U.S. Special Operations Command for confirmation, he didn’t get any. Then one of Kyle’s officers told the reporter, “I never heard that story.”

Does that mean it didn’t happen? Who knows. It’s certainly possible that Kyle killed two Texan thieves and their bodies disappeared. And it’s also possible Kyle killed 30 armed assailants in New Orleans to protect its residents in Katrina’s aftermath. But it’s also possible Kyle couldn’t let go of his own legend, and, in a haze of post-traumatic stress, let his tales veer into untruth.

Even now, more than a year after Kyle was killed by a fellow veteran at a Texas shooting range, the most important aspect of his myth remains unclear. His book says the Navy confirmed he killed 160 in Iraq.

Kyle, for his part, claimed he killed 255.

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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