Kyle's military cocoon might have hurt, not helped

Posted Tuesday, Feb. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Chris Kyle never really left the military. A well-decorated Navy SEAL sniper, he completed four tours in Iraq with an extraordinary record of kills. His book about his experiences in this clandestine fraternity gained him much admiration.

He also confessed to his use of alcohol and unwillingness to go out after his discharge because of things that could trigger his war experience. He overcame his struggles by rebuilding a military cocoon as a means of therapy.

He wanted veterans to be seen as strong and heroic, like soldiers who serve honorably and heroically and for the sake of others.

Kyle and a friend, Chad Littlefield, were shot to death Saturday at a gun range west of Glen Rose. Police later arrested Eddie Ray Routh, 25, a military veteran who told officers he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kyle's idea of what worked best for returning veterans was the military espirt de corps of an active unit. He re-created the military world of heroism at work and with other vets.

He used the tools of his military experience at his Fitco Care Foundation, designing treatments built on exercise, counseling and veteran camaraderie.

And he kept a live-fire range open and invited others to shoot for therapy.

In a telling comment, however, about his first kill in Iraq, Kyle hinted at the cost of leaving his cocoon:

"[I]t was hard trying to wrap my mind around, 'Well, how can I shoot another human being?' And even the first time I had to do it, they're yelling at me. 'You have to do it! Take it! Take it!' And it's still trying to get over the fact that, well, I'm fixin' to have to kill someone.

"And then you do it, and you have to think of it differently. You're not killing a person, you're killing an enemy that if you don't do it, they're gonna kill your guys. ...

"You have to de-humanize it, so you don't go crazy." (bit.ly/WPZJOW)

In civilian life, Kyle continued to de-humanize his enemies, referring to people in Iraq as "savages," while he also dismissed the lives of civilians as shallow and selfish.

Kyle may have failed to understand the difficulties some returning vets might have with a "HOOHA" model of counseling, and training, especially those with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and moral injury. For veterans who feel betrayed by the government, have serious trauma or experience a collapse of moral meaning after war, military life can be part of the difficulty in adjusting to the civilian world.

Kyle was not a trained clinician or minister. Yet, with the best of intentions and care for other veterans, he tried to help a troubled reservist he barely knew. Did he know of Routh's treatment for mental illness, his DUI or his murder-suicide attempt? If Kyle knew these things and still took Routh to a live-fire range or tried to give therapy to a virtual stranger, we must question the judgment of his decision.

We mourn the deaths of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield. They are tragic, senseless killings that have left their families and friends with unimaginable loss. We may never know why they died. However, we hope their deaths can help us all better understand the complicated and difficult return to civilian life for combat veterans.

Kyle never really got the chance to come home. His life was dedicated to still being part of the war.

In trying to treat Routh by echoing his war experience, Kyle may have provoked a desperate Routh to seek escape from such "help."

Without providing adequate ways for veterans to process their war experience, reflect on its moral and psychological impact and be restored to civilian values and life, we fail as a society to bring them all the way home.

Coleman Baker, Rita Nakashima Brock and Herman Keizer Jr. are administrators at the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School. Brock is co-author of Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War.

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