The War That Never Ends: Shooting of military sniper Chris Kyle raises new questions about whether PTSD should be a defense for murder

[This story appears on the cover of this month's Tarleton Magazine. It is reprinted with permission of the Tarleton State University Division of Advancement & External Relations. See the PDF here: Tarleton Magazine]

Photo by Jeremy Enlow/Reprinted with permission of Tarleton State University Division of Advancement & External Relations

Photo by Jeremy Enlow/Reprinted with permission of Tarleton State University Division of Advancement & External Relations

By Kathryn Jones

The Saturday morning of Feb. 2 was sunny and warm, giving an early hint of spring. Former Navy SEAL and celebrated military sniper Chris Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield, liked to go out to the country and shoot on days like this, so they hopped in Kyle’s black truck and drove from their homes in Midlothian to nearby Lancaster. There they picked up a young man neither one knew well.

His name was Eddie Ray Routh, and he was 25 years old, with dark brown hair, a trimmed beard and penetrating dark eyes. Routh’s mother, Jodi, a special education aide at an elementary school in Midlothian, had asked for Kyle’s help. Her son was having problems adjusting after returning from two tours of duty as a U.S. Marine stationed in Iraq, then in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He had been repeatedly hospitalized for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and released the week before the outing.

Whether Kyle knew the details of Routh’s recent hospitalizations, no one knows for sure. A fellow veteran needed help, and Kyle was going to try to help him.

They drove for more than an hour on U.S. 67 to the turnoff to Rough Creek Lodge west of Glen Rose. A winding county road led to the tall iron and stone gates of Rough Creek, an upscale resort with a spa, gourmet restaurant, bass fishing lake and a 1,000-yard shooting range equipped with a sniper rig. Kyle knew it well; he was planning to hold a shooting class there in March.

The range was on a remote part of the 11,000-acre resort in Erath County. Exactly what happened there over the next several hours isn’t known for certain. What is known is that the bodies of Kyle and Littlefield were discovered later that afternoon. They had been shot at close range, law enforcement authorities said. Kyle’s truck was missing. So was Routh.

According to an arrest affidavit, Routh drove Kyle’s truck to his sister’s home in Midlothian, where he confessed to the shootings. Within hours he was arrested, handcuffed and transported to Stephenville, where he was charged with two counts of capital murder. As of this writing, a grand jury has not indicted him. Routh was undergoing psychological evaluation to determine his mental competence. He remains locked up in the Erath County Jail.

Eddie Ray Routh in his Erath County mugshot

Eddie Ray Routh in his Erath County mugshot

No training to be a civilian

News of the killings spread fast over cellphones and the Internet. It was the lead story on national and international newscasts and websites. Some of Kyle’s friends said they didn’t believe it at first. Their initial reaction was that an Iraqi insurgent or sympathizer had taken him out in retaliation for all the “targets” he had killed.

Kyle’s Navy SEAL buddies had given him the nickname of “The Legend” for his prowess as a sniper. He had killed anywhere from 150 to 160 insurgents during missions in Iraq, according to his memoir about his experiences, American Sniper, which became a New York Times bestseller.

And it was incredulous that the military’s most lethal sniper could be killed by a young man he was trying to help. “We can’t make sense of it,” Kyle’s father, Wayne, said in an interview. “He spent almost 11 years in the service, most of that on dangerous missions.” Wayne and his wife, Deby, went through four deployments wondering if their son would come back home. “Raising a child is stressful to a point, but there’s nothing as stressful as sending one of your loved ones off to war,” Wayne added. “We had tried to condition ourselves to expect the worst because of what he did…. You can never prepare yourself for the ultimate time when you’re notified, but we knew he was one of the most highly trained, highly skilled members of probably the most elite fighting force in the world.”

Wayne recalls that he told Chris he was more worried about him as a civilian than when his son was on active duty. “There’s no training to be a civilian,” Wayne said. “You’ve learned before in the military what to possibly expect around the corner. You can’t predict that in a civilian world.”

But Kyle was the kind of guy who would help any veteran in need, family and friends say. “He understood that each individual, as they come back, deals with different challenges,” Wayne said. “He wanted to help them work through things and become productive parts of society.”

In his memoir, Chris Kyle recounted how he struggled with his own demons and the toll his military life took on his wife, Taya, and two young children. But he made the transition to civilian life and started a training company, Craft International, for the military and law enforcement. He also set up a foundation, FITCO Cares, to provide veterans free fitness equipment, personal training and life coaching to those with disabilities or suffering from PTSD.

Chris Kyle and his wife, Taya, in June 2012. (From the American Sniper Facebook page)

Chris Kyle and his wife, Taya, in June 2012. (From the American Sniper Facebook page)

Wayne Kyle says his son was not trying to give vets “therapy” in the psychological sense. Instead, Chris believed that taking them hunting or shooting in a non-threatening setting and training them ended up being a form of therapy. “He got such joy out of taking the veterans and helping them with things, just going out to the range and shooting,” Wayne said. “If you take an individual that’s been in firefights and remove them from that and put them into the civilian world, they feel good about going out and shooting. It’s stress relief.”

‘It’s like a numbness’

The shock of Kyle’s death reverberated at Tarleton State University in Stephenville where Kyle attended college. The school’s Alumni Association just weeks before his death had named him its Outstanding Young Alumnus, even though he never actually graduated. Many of the veterans on campus felt Kyle’s death deeply. “It’s like a numbness,” said Elizabeth Johnson, coordinator of Tarleton’s Military Veterans Services Center. “It’s like someone threw cold water in their faces. It was a slap of reality. It was hard for them.”

Several vets came to Johnson’s office after they heard the news. “They don’t come in and say, ‘I have PTSD,’” Johnson explained. “They come in and say, ‘I think I may need to talk to somebody.’” The center does not have in-house counselors, but refers student-veterans to off-campus sites that offer psychological counseling services.

Experts say there is no concrete data on crime rates related to Iraq or Afghanistan veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Suicide rates are beginning to be tracked, but not homicides. But the ties between PTSD and crime are not new to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 1988 the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Survey found that about 480,000, or 15 percent, of all Vietnam vets were diagnosed with PTSD. About half of them had been arrested or jailed and 11.5 percent had been convicted of a felony.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that in 2011, VA medical centers and clinics treated 476,515 veterans with primary or secondary diagnoses of PTSD.

Routh’s court-appointed attorneys are planning to use the mental state of their client as a defense. Stephenville attorney R. Shay Isham said that Routh’s mother pleaded with the VA hospital in Dallas not to release her son just the week before the killings. Routh’s other court-appointed attorney, J. Warren St. John of Fort Worth, said he is “disheartened” by the way the military treats vets. “These kids are trained to kill people,” St. John said. “Then we just expect them to come home and act in a normal manner?”

Routh has been charged with capital murder in the deaths of ex-Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and Chad LIttlefield

Thousands of people attended Chris Kyle’s memorial service at Cowboys Stadium.

No excuse for murder

Wayne Kyle says that the U.S. government has “abandoned” its military vets. “Our government has chosen to encourage our young people to join the military, to defend our country, to defend our freedoms, our rights and then when they do that and decide to go into the civilian world, they forget about them, not recognizing that there is a problem out there,” Wayne said. But under no circumstances should PTSD be an excuse for committing murder, he added.

“Our family stands behind that 100 percent. I don’t know this individual (Routh) and don’t know whether he suffers from PTSD, but it is not an excuse for him to have committed the worst crime of our life,” he continued.

The first case of an Iraq war veteran found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity due to PTSD was the 2009 case of Jessie Bratcher in Oregon. Rather than being sentenced to a maximum-security prison, he was sent to the Oregon State Hospital for treatment.

That same year, however, a PTSD case in Altoona, Pa., turned out differently. A veteran, Nicholas Horner, was charged with two murders less than a year after returning from Iraq. He had been diagnosed with PTSD. His lawyers argued he was taking a mix of drugs to treat the disorder and they “confused” him. The jury, however, convicted Horner of first-degree murder. Instead of receiving the death penalty, he got life in prison.

Barry R. Schaller, a former Connecticut Supreme Court judge, in his 2012 book, Veterans on Trial: The Coming Court Battles Over PTSD, predicted that a wave of cases connected to the “invisible injury” of PTSD is coming. The courts “will bear the brunt of postwar mental health problems,” he wrote.

Chris Kyle’s parents and wife plan to carry on his work on behalf of vets. Wayne Kyle said the family supports two organizations in particular, Halo for Freedom Warrior Foundation (www.haloforfreedom.org) and America’s Mighty Warriors (www. americasmightywarriors.org), which was started by the mother of Marc Alan Lee, the first Navy SEAL killed in Iraq.

“Our government is not going to take care of our military nor its veterans,” Wayne Kyle said. “As citizens of this wonderful country that our veterans have provided us a means to live in and experience the freedoms that we have, it’s our duty to take care of them.”

Student journalist K'Leigh Bedingfield. PHOTO BY LANDON HASTON/Texan News Service

Tarleton student journalist K’Leigh Bedingfield likely was the last person to interview Kyle.  Photo by Landon Haston/Texan News Service

K’Leigh Bedingfield, a Tarleton communication studies student, interviewed Kyle after his distinguished young alumnus award. In what is most likely the last interview he granted, she had the foresight to ask this question: “What kind of lasting impression would you want to leave? Like a legacy, I guess you could say?” Kyle didn’t even have to pause to think about it. “I would love for people, when they think of me, to think, ‘Here’s a guy who stood up for what he believed in and helped make a difference for the vets—somebody who cared so much about them that he wanted them taken care of.”

His father added: “Chris did so many things to make a name for himself when he was active duty. But I think he got more joy out of helping veterans after he got out. He felt tremendous about saving lives. He never wanted to be known for the number of kills that he had.”

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” For Chris Kyle, the war is over. For Eddie Ray Routh, the battle rages on, if only between the enemies fighting in his mind, and there may never be any peace. But for other veterans, Kyle’s work goes on without him. He may well end up living up to his nickname “The Legend” in a very different way— by saving more lives than he ever took with his rifle.

 Kathryn Jones is an adjunct instructor of journalism at Tarleton State University and the editor of the Glen Rose Current. She covered the Chris Kyle-Chad Littlefield murders for The New York Times. 

3 Responses to The War That Never Ends: Shooting of military sniper Chris Kyle raises new questions about whether PTSD should be a defense for murder

  1. Suzanne Gentling Reply

    July 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    Thank you, Kathryn, for your sensitive article on an issue that has only recently begun to be taken seriously by those of us who weren’t there. At least now, it has a name.

    My father, 1913-1976, never had a name for the psychological damage he suffered after serving in the Pacific in WW II. He steadfastly refused to reveal his burden to anyone, including his family.

    I believe that his experience in the war was one of the primary factors that led to his early death from alcoholism. He was a brilliant but tortured man.

    All of our fine young men and women who return from war are damaged and changed for life. War is no solution and the glorification of it, particularly by those of us who don’t have to participate, doesn’t help either.

    • Kathryn Reply

      July 25, 2013 at 9:45 am

      Thanks, Suzanne. With yesterday’s indictment of Eddie Ray Routh, the veteran accused in the Kyle shooting, I expect this issue will receive lots of attention. Maybe something good will come out of it.

      My father, who’s 88, also served in the Pacific in WWII. He never talked much about his war experiences until recent years. He was on an aircraft carrier and they were attacked by kamikaze pilots more than once. I learned he had been wounded in one attack, but so many people were dying around him that he just put on a bandage and carried on (shrapnel had cut his arm badly). He never applied to get a medal; didn’t want one.

      I’m sorry to hear about your father’s sufferings. I don’t know how anyone can come back from those experiences unchanged. As I said, maybe something good will come out of all the media attention drawn to the severe problems vets are having. It’s not a sign of weakness.

      Thanks so much for writing.

  2. Larry P. Smith Reply

    July 18, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Kathryn,
    Thank you for reprinting this article in the “Current”. It is a reminder to focus on the plight of our veterans as they return home and that all injuries are not physical. The tolls on our young men, women and their families are devastating. There is no way for us to fully comprehend the magnitude but, articles like yours help.
    Are there veterans or families in the area that we can help?

    Thank you,
    Larry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>