The murder of Chris Kyle: A watershed moment for military PTSD?

One of the deadliest snipers in America was reportedly shot dead by a troubled ex-Marine he was trying to help

Eddie Ray Routh
(Image credit: REUTERS/Erath County Sheriff’s Office)

Chris Kyle was so deadly with a sniper rifle that Iraqi insurgents gave the U.S. Navy SEAL the nickname "the devil of Ramadi" and put a bounty on his head. No dice. Kyle retired in 2009 as one of the deadliest snipers in U.S. military history, notching at least 150 kills, then published a best-selling autobiography, American Sniper, in 2012. Kyle started a military training company, Craft International, and in 2011 launched a charity, FITCO Cares Foundation, to help provide exercise equipment and counseling for veterans, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On Saturday, Kyle, 38, and a friend, fellow veteran Chad Littlefield, 35, were shot dead at a Dallas-area shooting range, allegedly by unemployed Marine reservist Eddie Ray Routh, who reportedly became afflicted with PTSD during tours in Iraq and Haiti.

According to law enforcement officials, Routh shot Kyle and Littlefield point-blank, drove off in Kyle's truck, confessed to the murders to his sister, then returned home, where police found him and subsequently caught him after a brief car chase. "My heart is breaking," Travis Cox, director of FITCO Cares, said in a statement. "Chris died doing what he filled his heart with passion — serving soldiers struggling with the fight to overcome PTSD. His service, life, and premature death will never be in vain."

Certainly, Kyle's death "has pushed the problem of post-traumatic stress disorder among American troops to the fore," says Katie Moisse at ABC News. And it's a potentially very large problem. "While the details of Routh's mental health are unclear, up to 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, according to a 2008 RAND study." PTSD is also a big factor in the one third of Iraq and Afghanistan vets who reported showing aggression in the past year, including 11 percent who said they had at least threatened somebody with a knife or gun, gotten in a fight, or tried to rape someone, according to a survey by the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine. What, exactly, is PTSD?

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"The symptoms can range from mildly disturbing to wholly incapacitating," said Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and president elect of the American Psychiatric Association, describing the nightmares and flashbacks that can haunt soldiers long after their return to civilian life. "And we're still limited in our understanding of why it occurs, what it consists of, and the best approaches to treatment." One treatment approach involves the slow, steady re-exposure of patients to their PTSD triggers.... Kyle was known to take veterans battling PTSD to the shooting range. [ABC News]

Kyle dealt with his own issues adjusting to civilian life, and he believed that exercise and hanging out with fellow vets could help others struggling after returning from battle. The hunting range is one place where veterans feel comfortable, says Rorke Denver, a SEAL reservist who served with Kyle. "That type of shooting can actually be cathartic, calming," he tells The Los Angeles Times. Using the skills you learned in the military is useful in "letting your heart settle." Traditional therapy works for some people, Iraq vet Victor Vandam tells The Dallas Morning News. "But talking to someone who has been in the same position as you" beats sitting in a room and talking to "a psychologist who has never been in a situation like that in their life."

Mental health experts say that the mentally ill, including veterans with PTSD, don't actually add that much to the high rate of gun violence in the U.S. But Kyle's high-profile murder will color Obama's gun-control speech in Minneapolis on Monday, say Matthew Larotonda and Reena Ninan at ABC News.

As President Obama and gun-control advocates continue to spar with opponents who say any further restrictions on the weapons would be an infringement of their Second Amendment rights, strengthening mental health care seems to be one aspect of the debate that both sides agree on. For veterans coming back from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, care can be a slow process. The Department of Veterans Affairs has increased its staff to attempt to stay ahead of the influx, but according to an inspector general report released last year, roughly half of new mental health patients had to wait for about 50 days before their first evaluation. A separate VA study released Friday found an average 22 former service members commit suicide each day. And the number of veterans receiving mental health treatment from the VA is steadily rising. The last year saw more than 1.3 million soldiers enter the system, up from 927,000 in 2006. [ABC News]

After 12 years of war, the VA backlog is a big issue, but not everyone thinks that taking potentially traumatized and unstable former soldiers out shooting is a good solution. Kyle disagreed, Travis Cox at FITCO Cares tells The Associated Press. "He didn't have any fear at all as far as working with an extreme case.... Just like in combat he would take it head on and do whatever he could to give these guys assistance.... He was willing to help anyone in need."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.