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True American Badass: A Tribute to Chris Kyle

This April 8, Chris Kyle would have celebrated his 39th birthday.

True American Badass: A Tribute to Chris Kyle photo

Courtesy of NBC

But, on February 2, 2013, his life was tragically cut short. That day mainstream America learned a lot about the man who had been the best sniper in U.S. history. Civilians suddenly got a glimpse into the world of war, into what it meant to be a SEAL and a sniper. They listened in rapt attention to stories of his battlefield exploits, his incredible long shots, and his multiple brushes with death.

They also heard of his post-retirement victories — of the way he kept right on serving stateside, working to help his fellow veterans regain their footing in normal life.

And unfortunately, they learned what it meant to lose a hero.

The Early Years

Kyle was born in Texas and grew up shooting. His first firearm was a .30-06 Springfield rifle—no peashooters or BB guns for this kid. He hunted around Texas with his father, learning how to stalk and bring down game, but his chosen profession wasn’t first as a rifleman. It was as a rodeo rider.

Kyle was a member of his school rodeo team, and after graduation, he rode broncos on the professional circuit until an injury knocked him out of the game. Ultimately, though, his loss of one career led him to his fate, as he eventually joined the Navy and put his childhood passion for guns to work in his training as a SEAL.

The Devil of Ramadi

Kyle’s service in the Persian Gulf reads like the plot of the quintessential action movie. As part of SEAL Team Three, he did four tours in Iraq, and his lethality as a long-range sniper soon earned him the nickname “al-Shaitan Ramad,” or “The Devil of Ramadi,” from the enemy.

And his skills saved lives. Near the beginning of his tour, he picked off a grenade-wielding woman moments before she could attack nearby troops. The most impressive shot on his record stopped an insurgent from firing a rocket at an American convoy — at an estimated 2,100 yards, or nearly 1.2 miles.

But the rough ride hadn’t ended with his time in the rodeo.

He was shot twice, caught up in six different IED explosions, and suffered frag wounds from RPG blasts.

His sniper kill count at retirement was 255, 160 of which were confirmed by the Pentagon. This makes him the deadliest sniper in American history. His service earned him numerous awards, including two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars with Valor.

Tools of the Trade

Kyle’s hunting days showed in his battlefield gear. Though he made his longest strike with a .338 Lapua Magnum, he preferred the .300 Win Mag cartridge, a good old American big-game round. He even had a custom bolt-action rifle built around the .300, a gun he referred to as “laser” accurate even at 1,800 yards.

American Action Hero

After 10 years in the Navy, Kyle, a family man as well as a legend of the battlefield, retired in order to “save his marriage.”

Kyle’s return to the States was nearly as colorful as his time overseas, and included his share of the American spotlight. He was teamed up with actor Dean Cain in the reality TV show Stars Earn Stripes. His now-famous book, American Sniper, detailed his time in Iraq, giving readers an inside take on life in the combat zone. And he founded Craft International to train military, law enforcement, and civilians.

According to Michael J. Mooney, a writer for Dallas-based news site Frontburner, Kyle even personally confirmed a showdown he experienced in 2009, shortly after his retirement, a scene that reads straight out of an action-movie script.

Kyle was gassing up his distinctive Ford F-350 when he was approached by two men with handguns demanding the keys.

This is the part where the audience says to themselves, “Boy, did they pick the wrong guy.”

According to Kyle’s interview with Mooney, the ex-SEAL knew on sight that the would-be robbers weren’t confident gunmen. When he reached into the car “for his keys,” he reportedly drew his Colt 1911 from an appendix carry, fired two shots under his left armpit into the first assailant, then turned and put two more rounds into the second.

Done and done.

There were other stories about the man, including a possibly apocryphal story about his punching out former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura at a wake. (Ventura vehemently denied the claim and filed a defamation lawsuit against Kyle, saying he had never even met the ex-sniper.) But the stories of Kyle paint a picture of the rough-and-ready, rugged individualist that American folktales so often heroize. It’s a picture that fits the reality with amazing accuracy.

American Hometown Hero

Chris Kyle — sniper, sailor, father, husband, folk hero — was eventually felled doing what he had done for so long: serving his country.

Kyle made it his mission to help veterans who returned from the war physically or emotionally injured. His non-profit, FITCO Cares Heroes Project, helps provide disabled soldiers with the exercise equipment they need to perform physical therapy at home.

He also tried to help his fellow veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s still unclear how he came into contact with Eddie Ray Routh, a reportedly mentally ill veteran suffering from PTSD and drug addiction. It seems that, to help the former Marine ease back into civilian life, Kyle took the man to a Texas gun range.

But something went horribly wrong, and Routh reportedly shot and killed both Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield. Routh later told his sister he had to kill them before they could kill him.

It proved an ironic end for a man who came through four tours of duty in some of the most active war zones in the world — gunned down by a fellow veteran, a man he only wanted to help heal.

On February 12, after an emotional farewell from thousands, including his tearful wife, Taya, Kyle was laid to rest alongside other Texan SEALs at the Texas State Cemetery.

And in that moment, America saw a hero laid to rest. A hero to the men whose lives he saved in the streets of Iraq and to the veterans he helped here at home.

He may be the closest thing a living human being can come to a movie-style action hero. But the people who knew him know that his greatest heroism came after the shooting stopped.

And, like any good action star, he died a hero, trying to save a comrade from an enemy just as real as the bombs and bullets of foreign lands.

To contribute to the memorial fund for the families of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, please visit: http://www.chriskylememorialtrust.org.