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The week before Memorial Day, the legacy of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who wrote the best-selling autobiography that was turned into the blockbuster Clint Eastwood film American Sniper, once again emerged at the center of a news controversy, as an investigative report alleged that he had distorted or lied about his military record. The Intercept broke the story on Wednesday, reporting that the website had obtained previously classified internal Navy documents and that Kyle “embellished” his military record. In the following 48 hours, dozens of news outlets published follow-up pieces, many of them stating flatly that Kyle had lied about his medal tally.
On May 28, The Hollywood Reporter published its own analysis, which concluded that the newly released documents were inconclusive — that the document that typically is the definitive record of military service matched Kyle’s claims and that the Navy had not yet publicly stated this document or the facts within it were incorrect. In a follow-up to that report, Scott McEwen, a longtime friend of Kyle’s who also co-wrote American Sniper (along with Jim DeFelice), reached out to THR to offer new details and substantiation about how the medal count in the book had been vetted with the Navy and to share his reaction to the recent controversy. What follows are highlights of a conversation that took place on June 1.
How did you meet Chris Kyle?
I met Chris while he was still active. We met through some mutual friend, other guys who were Navy SEALs. We became friends and used to do barbecues or have a beer together, that kind of a thing. Ultimately, I got to know him really well, and through him and other teammates I gained an understanding of how amazing his story was and exactly what he’d been through in his deployments in Iraq.
What was it like to collaborate with him on the book?
It started out with a bunch of long conversations, interviews with him and his teammates. I also looked through his records, to the extent Chris had them — he was still active duty, still in wartime situations a lot of the time.
Can you explain if and how you vetted facts in the book about his war record with the Navy, the SEALs and the Department of Defense?
There are statutory requirements that any book that involves active duty experiences be submitted for vetting through the Department of Defense. And we were especially concerned about it here because Chris obviously had been a Navy SEAL for ten years and we wanted to make sure that everything in that book was completely gone through by the various branches of the DOD. Chris had done a lot of work for numerous departments — different groups within the military as well as other agencies.
We submitted the book for vetting with the DOD, and then they sent to the SEAL teams, to commanders, to the Navy. I know this was done because there were discussions that took place directly with these entities, and certain parts of the manuscript were, at their request, redacted. In addition, certain other figures in the manuscript — for example the number of Chris’ confirmed kills —were agreed upon as something that could be released to the public.
Pivoting to more recent controversy that began last week with the Intercept story that alleged Kyle willfully embellished his record, what do you make of the fact that this many years later there are still conversations or disputes about his awards?
I find that article in the Intercept to be lacking in credibility as well as in content. I mean, the only things that are cited in there is an allegation that some unnamed Navy official said that Chris earned fewer medals than were found in his official record — a document that’s called the DD-214 — and the assertion that Chris was only given three or four commendations that could be gleaned from certain other documents. But they didn’t offer any backup to prove that’s all there is. But meanwhile, they released the DD-214, a rather complete document, and that shows him having two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. I’m not aware of a document that lessens the medals that were contained in the DD-214.
In any case, when Chris and I were working on the book, we sent the DD-214 to the DOD and the Navy for vetting, there was never any argument or even discussion that disputed a single thing in that document. They were concerned about certain things — you will notice a lot of blacked out things in that document that could potentially touch upon classified and other operations that SEALs do that don’t see the light of day. I’m aware of many, many classified things that will never meet the light of day regarding Chris Kyle. There certainly were a lot of confirmed kills that never were allowed beyond the 160 number. There was information out there that I believe the Navy official who the Intercept writer interviewed (if in fact there was a Navy official that he talked to) may not been aware of. If there was going to be a credible inquiry, the SEALs themselves would be the most dependable source of the information.
It’s incumbent on people who do report on this kind of thing to really look at their facts, and do a job that is worthy of reporting. And I find so often that this is very much lacking in the investigative journalism world these days. If you’re going to dispute the official and complete record, you better have pretty darned good stuff to be able to do that. That’s my outlook, given my former life as a trial lawyer. It just doesn’t fly with a jury and I don’t think it should fly with the public.
From the set of American Sniper, the movie, (from left): actor Bradley Cooper; Elliot Miller, a SEAL who was friends with Kyle and injured in Iraq; Mark Matzeflador, a SEAL who was friends with Kyle; director Clint Eastwood; and book co-author Scott McEwen. (courtesy Scott McEwen)
Do you feel certain that the number of Silver Stars and Bronze Stars he claimed in the book is accurate?
I believe it’s accurate. I’m not aware of any discrepancy whatsoever between the DD-214 and the actual facts out there, and if there was, I believe it would have been incumbent upon the Navy and/or the SEALs to inform us of this. I stand behind that record; I stand by my friend’s valor as well as for what he did for this country. The recent story’s reference to him earning only three Bronze Stars — that’s just absurd. There’s at least five, and I think maybe six that are referenced as Bronze Stars with valor — these aren’t Bronze Stars you get for just being there; this in the middle of the battle. You’re being shot at, you’re in harm’s way the entire time when you’re getting one of these awards. There was a reference made in one document [released last week] that said that later data indicated that one was reduced from a Silver Star to a Bronze — I’m not aware of that. I never was appraised of that. I don’t believe that to be true based on what I see.
The Intercept story and others that followed suggest that within the community of SEALs there’s some grumbling about Kyle’s record. Have you ever seen or heard this in your interactions with SEALs?
As far as this situation is concerned, I have never met a SEAL who felt that Chris Kyle was anything but a legend — which was his nickname amongst the SEALs. There is no doubt that amongst these guys that Chris is highly revered. But there are those within the SEAL community who would rather not use the name SEAL, to not even have the name uttered in public. There is group of guys out there who would rather keep all the stories, all of the data, everything related to the SEALs completely outside of the public realm or view. And I think there’s always been friction between “big Navy” and the SEAL teams, there’s always been a certain amount of rivalry, which has gotten more intense due to the notoriety of the SEAL teams, particularly these days after the killing of Bin Laden, and other heroic and public events that have transpired.
Why does a story like this come out and get so much traction? Why do you think so many people are still battling over or reinterpreting the legacy of Chris Kyle?
I think some of these stories are just click bait. But there’s something else going on — I think there’s a group of people in this society that really doesn’t like to see heroes coming from the military. I think that’s in a large degree from the left— I think the left doesn’t like heroes from the military like Chris who are larger than life. There just seems to be a desire to tear that type of character down. They feel that heroes should come from something else, maybe Hollywood stars. I don’t understand it and it’s so foreign to my thought process but I certainly believe it exists.
When we started this project in Hollywood, I was told from top to bottom, from many different people, that this might be a red-carpet type project, it might be an awards-type project, but it wasn’t going to be financially successful, because war movies just aren’t financially successful. That these types of stories of heroes, they’ve been tried — that they’ve done a few in Hollywood on the war — and they just don’t work, but we’re going to do it anyway because Bradley [Cooper] wants to do it and Bradley’s behind it. Well $600 million later, I think there is an appetite for heroes and I think there is a part of this country and the world that likes to see heroes who are willing to stand up for something. That is the true message of American Sniper — that so many people loved Chris Kyle and his story, one of true American heroism and exceptionalism.
There are a few notable instances where Chris might have told some stories that weren’t about his time of duty in Iraq — about sniping from the roof of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, or that car-jacking incident in Texas — that didn’t really hold up to fact-checking. How do you think those instances factor into this latest controversy?
I’ve heard those rumors — I was never a part of or told this stuff. I’m really not at liberty to comment whether they’re true or false. I would tend to look at the stories with a jaundiced eye. That being said, I don’t see how something that people bring up that allegedly took place after he got out of the military has anything to do with this man’s documented military record. I feel his record as a SEAL team hero — his record of bringing back guys alive who otherwise would be dead — is what I was concerned about when I worked with him on American Sniper. I believe that record is clear and real. The rest of this is rumor and innuendo. I try to stay away from that type of stuff.
Given that you knew Chris so well, what you want people to remember about him?
Chris, at the end of the day, died tried to help someone in the military, for the wrong reason — for the most ironic of reasons he was killed here in the United States. I was not in the military but I like to write about heroic figures in the military because they give so much to this nation. We need to respect those men and women who put their lives on the line for us. Some came back blown up, with missing limbs, and some didn’t come back at all.
I think that Chris Kyle and others like him deserve attention and respect and not to have hit pieces written like this about them merely for self aggrandizement of those writing it. I find it really disheartening that our society has gone so low to try and tear these people down.
What are you doing these days besides defending Kyle’s legacy?
I like writing real stories about real American heroes because I think in our life we have heroes from Hollywood or sports and I just don’t think those heroes match the standards set by the guys and women who are defending this country. I’ve got four novels in a series called Sniper Elite, which have done extremely well. Sony is now in production on a movie based on the Sniper Elite series. And I’m writing another book called American Commander about Ryan Zinke, he was a SEAL for 23 years and was one of Chris’ commanders and a commander at SEAL Team Six. That’s going to be a big book in this genre, I think.
From left: American Sniper co-author Scott McEwen, Navy SEAL translator Johnny Walker, Chris Kyle (courtesy Scott McEwen)
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