'American Sniper' Chris Kyle's Record Under Fire, But Is It a Memorial Day Rush to Judgment?

Chris Kyle ONE TIME USE - Getty - H 2016
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Chris Kyle ONE TIME USE - Getty - H 2016

Though a recent investigation concluded that the hero willfully distorted his medal count, newly released documents raise other possibilities and shed light on Kyle's military service.

With Memorial Day looming, media outlets are pouncing on 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, with news reports proclaiming that he 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.

Yet an analysis of the newly released documents and other materials suggests that such pronouncements may be premature or inaccurate. In addition, these documents shed new light on heroic details of Kyle’s military service — about his training, his war record and appraisals of his performance by senior officers — that have never been made public before.

New Documents, New Accusations

Kyle was killed in February 2013 by a former Marine four years after the decorated SEAL was discharged by the Navy. American Sniper sold more than 1 million copies and inspired a film of the same name, which went on to gross $547 million worldwide. In the book, Kyle famously asserted, “All told, I would end my career as a SEAL with two Silver Stars and five Bronze [Stars], all for valor.”

Perhaps part of the cynicism toward Kyle’s account stems from other dubious assertions that the former SEAL has publicly made in the past. He told stories that were widely disseminated and never proven to be true: that he killed two men who tried to carjack him near Dallas (and afterward was allowed by local police to simply drive away), that he shot looters from the roof of the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and that he punched out Jesse Ventura in a 2006 bar fight (which led to a $1.8 million defamation judgment in favor of Ventura).

Now come assertions that Kyle overstated his medal haul. Among the documents obtained by The Intercept are Navy certificates of one Silver Star and three Bronze Stars that Kyle was awarded; six years of evaluation records; and his discharge paperwork, a form known within the Navy as a DD-214. Based on these documents, and interviews with multiple SEALs who were not named, The Intercept concludes that Kyle only received the four commendations listed above and knowingly asserted an inflated total — despite being warned by Navy officials to correct the mistake before publishing his book.

The headlines and analysis that have since emerged from other news outlets take an even tougher stance. The New York Daily News proclaimed “American Sniper Chris Kyle lied about his military accomplishments, Navy SEALS knew, chose not to correct it.” Likewise, The Guardian asserted “American Sniper hero Chris Kyle lied about medal tally.”

Yet despite the rush to judgment, the truth about Kyle’s actual medal count and his motives seems less clear than accusatory headlines indicate.

Kyle’s DD-214, which he signed, actually lists a total of two Silver Stars and six Bronze stars, more than he claimed in his book. Typically, a DD-214 reflects a veteran’s official service record, but a Navy spokesperson told The Intercept that the Navy considers a soldier’s personnel file and official awards records to “be the authoritative sources for verifying entitlement to decorations and awards,” seemingly suggesting that the DD-214 is not accurate.  

Still, numerous issues complicate the narrative that Kyle knowingly lied about his medal tally. For one thing, the Navy has not explicitly stated that the DD-214 is inaccurate, only that the agency is investigating the discrepancy between the various documents. It remains possible that the document that Kyle signed is correct, or at least that he believed it to be correct. Also, Navy officials told the Navy Times that it is possible that Kyle received commendations for classified operations, which would not be made public in the same fashion as his other medals. Just two weeks ago, USA Today reported that more than 100 Silver Stars have been secretly handed out in the past 15 years to SEALs (and at least one Marine) who were involved in clandestine missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the same vein, no members of SEAL Team 6 have received any public citations for the 2011 mission into Pakistan that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden. (One final point worth noting is that Kyle was awarded a Silver Star in 2004 that was downgraded to a Bronze Star in 2006 — so it’s possible that he was counting the original medal in his tally.)

The comments sections of the Navy Times story mentioned above is dominated by sympathetic statements made by people who say they are current and retired Navy personnel. Many of them assert that the Navy has erroneously underreported their commendations, while others question why Kyle would sign a DD-214 unless he felt the medal tally was correct.

In short, there appear to be multiple explanations of why Kyle’s claimed tally could be correct, and even more reasons to question whether he willfully lied about his record. It’s possible that he intentionally distorted his medal tally and it’s also possible that he did not.

New Details of Kyle's Service Emerge

In any case, the personnel files made public this week provide new details about the military career of Kyle. The Navy released seven Evaluation Report & Counseling Record forms, known internally as E1-E6. These documents contain performance ratings and comments from Kyle’s “Reporting Senior” and cover the arc of the sniper’s military career from June 2003 through September 2009.

In his earliest released evaluation, completed in the spring of 2004, Kyle is lauded as a “COMBAT PROVEN SEAL,” commended for his efforts to help the city of Scripps Poway rebuild after large fires ravaged the community, and recommended for promotion. The following year he is awarded four combat medals or ribbons, lauded for “unsurpassed courage under fire while conducting sniper operations in support of [redacted] during the siege of Fallujah” as well as for exceptional leadership “in combat during the most urban combat ever experienced by NSW personnel.”

The commendations kept coming in November 2005, when his superior acknowledged Kyle’s contributions training other SEAL snipers in urban operations, graded him as “greatly exceeds standards” for leadership, and called Kyle “ONE OF THE MOST COMBAT EXPERIENCED OPERATORS IN THE SEAL TEAMS. HE HAS MADE STRONGEST PERSONAL ENDORSEMENT FOR PROMOTION TO CHIEF PETTY OFFICER.”

In his next E1-E6 evaluation, Kyle is described by his senior officer as “ONE OF THE MOST EFFECTIVE COMBAT SNIPERS IN U.S. MILITARY HISTORY” and noted that he “single-handedly thwarted a large-scale coordinated attack on a [redacted]” and “planned and executed [redacted] sniper overwatch missions in the City of Ar Ramadi.” The report concludes with the recommendation to promote Kyle “immediately.”

An evaluation filed in November 2007 reflects Kyle’s transition from the battlefield, as he begins work as a platoon training leader. He is graded as “greatly exceeds standards,” the highest rating possible, for his professional knowledge, his quality of work, his personal accomplishments, his teamwork and his leadership. This report also mentions Kyle earning one of his Bronze Stars with “combat distinguishing device.” The record concludes “PROMOTE IMMEDIATELY!”

The final two E1-E6 reports further document his transition to a chief petty officer responsible for training young SEALS. These two reports lack the documentation of wartime heroics of his earlier evaluations, but highlight how he ensures “each man is better prepared for all the challenges they may meet on and off the battlefield.” Kyle is consistently rated to be above standard. His final evaluation, completed in September 2009, concludes with a recommendation that Kyle is ready for another promotion.

Kyle’s separation documents indicate that he was discharged from the Navy on Nov. 4, 2009.

One fact that is not disputed is that Kyle was awarded a Silver Star for his service during a 2006 tour of duty in Iraq. What follows is the exact language that accompanied that award:

“The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Special Warfare Operator Christopher S. Kyle, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving as Lead Sniper while assigned to Naval Special Warfare Task Unit-RAMADI in direct support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM from 24 April to 27 August 2006. Petty Officer Kyle’s heroic actions, professionalism and incredible sniper skills had tremendous impact in the success of U.S. and Iraqi Forces in routing the insurgency and seizing key areas of the City of Ar Ramadi, the epicenter of Al Qaeda and insurgent activity in Iraq. During 32 sniper overwatch missions, he personally accounted for 91 confirmed enemy fighters killed and dozens more probably killed or wounded. Petty Officer Kyle’s efforts were integral to the success of four U.S. Army and Marine Corps Battalion Task Force operations, establishing U.S and Iraqi Army combat outposts in previously insurgent-held areas. His engagements directly prevented casualties to U.S. and Iraqi Forces on more than 30 occasions, including enemy rocket-propelled grenade and mortar teams eliminated, five enemy snipers with scoped weapons eliminated, and dozens of insurgent fighters destroyed while actively engaging U.S. and Iraqi forces with small arms. By his bold leadership, courageous actions, and total dedication to duty, Petty Officer Kyle reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”