How much should questions about Chris Kyle's military awards affect our view?

By MIKE HASHIMOTO | The Dallas Morning News | Published: May 27, 2016

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — It’s a simple question with no simple answer, at least not for me:

If Chris Kyle puffed up his military record, as an online publication reported last week, should it reverse our view of him?

Hero to goat? American Sniper to American Embellisher?

Here I must admit to a long admiration of Kyle, whose autobiography was turned into a 2014 Clint Eastwood movie, starring Bradley Cooper. It was that year’s highest-grossing film and highest-grossing war film of all time, not adjusted for inflation.

They told the story of young man from Odessa who grew up into a Navy SEAL and “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history,” as the book’s title included. He claimed 255 battlefield kills from four tours in Iraq, with the Defense Department confirming 160.

Those numbers weren’t so much the issue, as The Intercept reports it. The crux is that unnamed Navy officers say Kyle earned one Silver Star and three Bronze Stars with Valor — not the two and five he claimed in his book.

And Kyle, they say, was warned before American Sniper was published that he had his medal count wrong and should correct it. Obviously, he did not.

In between that publication and the making of the Eastwood film, Chris Kyle died. More precisely, he and close friend Chad Littlefield were shot to death in February 2013. A former Marine, Eddie Ray Routh, was convicted for their murders at an Erath County gun range, his insanity defense failing to sway jurors.

Kyle and Littlefield had taken Routh out for some shooting, in an attempt to help him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kyle had his own struggles, after returning from Iraq for the final time and leaving the Navy in 2009. Adjusting to civilian life was difficult, as it is for many veterans, and he battled depression. That journey inspired him to help other veterans by taking them on trips to shoot, hunt or just relax.

“If these guys are out there sacrificing for me, I feel like it’s my duty to give to them when they come home — no matter what it’ll be,” he told this newspaper in 2012.

The obvious irony was that, after surviving so much war, he was killed as a 38-year-old civilian trying to help someone in need. His public memorial at what was then known as Cowboys Stadium drew 7,000 people.

“It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy,” said Rorke Denver, who served in SEAL Team 3 with Kyle in 2006. “He has been in harm’s way more than warriors dream of being in, to then come home, be off of active duty and continue to serve and work with people who were dealing with trauma.”

Again, all washed way because Kyle also struggled with the truth?

Bear in mind, the “stolen valor” sin of claiming military awards not genuinely earned is far more serious than telling stories about that buzzer-beating basket to win the big game when your butt never left the bench. The contract among military members, spoken and unspoken, is that medals are earned with blood, not fiction.

Then there’s Kyle’s separation document, known as his DD214, which lists two Silver Stars and six — not five, not three — Bronze Stars with Valor. Reporters for The Intercept asked the Navy, which provided records for one Silver Star and three Bronze Stars with Valor.

The DD214 should match records available now, but “the process involves people and inevitably some errors may occur,” a Navy spokesman said.

Kyle’s truthfulness has been questioned before. Jesse Ventura, the former Minnesota governor and former SEAL, was awarded $1.8 million in damages from Kyle’s estate over claims of a punch-out in a bar that were not verified. (Kyle’s widow, Taya, has appealed.) Other stories Kyle told over the years seemed implausible, at best.

So we’re left with what, exactly? To earn even one Silver Star or a single Bronze Star with Valor is award enough for the great majority of Americans. His bravery and service, his heroism in combat, are unquestioned.

His memory, however many medals he earned, will never be neutral. His name became attached to our debates over war, firearms, killing and when, if ever, is it justified. Chris Kyle signed up to do a job and did it as well as anyone, ever. If I am troubled that all of his facts may not line up today, it doesn’t change what really matters.

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