The killing of Iraq veteran and national figure Chris Kyle prompted media queries and questions for the three of us who run the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School. Our Center is dedicated to recovery from moral injury in veterans. Rev. Dr. Coleman Baker, Chaplain (Col.) Herman Keizer, Jr. (ret.) and I spent a day reflecting together on what went wrong when Kyle tried to help a fellow vet. Here are some of our reflections.
Chris Kyle, a well-decorated Navy SEAL sniper, completed four tours in Iraq with an extraordinary record of kills. Kyle's book about his experiences in the clandestine fraternity gained him much admiration. Then, a week ago on a firing range in Texas, Eric Routh, a Marine reservist who served in Iraq, killed him and his fellow veteran Chad Littlefield.
Kyle was beloved by many because he tried to support his fellow vets in returning to civilian life, but it seems clear that Kyle himself never really left the military. He overcame his own struggles with alcohol and a fear of leaving his house by re-building a military cocoon as a means of therapy. Kyle's idea of what worked best for returning veterans was the military espirt de corps of an active unit. 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.
He recreated the military world of heroism both at work and with other vets. He wanted veterans to be seen as strong and heroic, like soldiers who serve honorably and heroically and for the sake of others. His life was dedicated to still being part of the war. "Being able to do this makes me feel like I'm still a part of it and still giving back."
In trying to treat Eric Routh by echoing his war experience, Kyle, who sought to stay in war, may have provoked a desperate Routh to seek escape from such "help." By not questioning whether military values can simply be relived in civilian life, Kyle failed to understand 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, more exposure to military life can compound the difficulty of adjusting to the civilian world.
In a telling comment, however, about his first kill in Iraq, Kyle hints at the personal cost of leaving his cocoon:
It 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.
In his civilian life, Kyle continued this strategy of de-humanizing his enemies. He referred to people in Iraq as "savages." He also dismissed civilians as shallow and selfish.
We think Kyle had a good point about civilian society. The care for each other unto death and the willingness to die in service to others bonds a combat unit in ways that are rare in civilian life. During the Iraq War, civilians were shielded from images of coffins returning home and were advised to shop, rather than make personal sacrifices to support the troops. The narcissism, personal ambitions, and self-obsessions with consumerism and celebrity culture have prompted some veterans to ask, "I fought for this?"
Without a new social, emotional, spiritual system that can help veterans of war move from a military system to civilian life, we sentence many of them to military cocoons or lonely states of limbo from which transition is nigh impossible.
Few institutions in our culture ask people to commit to each other over the whole life course, from birth to death. Few organizations welcome strangers and include them in a community of care; attend to those who need help, feel hurt or are troubled in their souls; and hold each other accountable for living into their best selves in circles of generosity and reciprocity. These commitments of lifelong weekly activities describe congregational life. Though no congregation does them perfectly, most try their best, and many do them well.
We believe that congregations are one place that should be welcoming veterans home, but few have committed to this work. It should not be undertaken with just simple good intentions, though good intentions matter a great deal. To welcome veterans into a community's life, we need to understand how to assist the transition from the values of military life to religious life. We must advocate for better services for treating PTSD, and we must support veterans' families and all they go through to welcome veterans home.
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 were killed. However, we hope their deaths can help us all better understand the complicated and difficult return to civilian life for combat veterans and see this as an important responsibility of us all.
Without adequate ways for veterans to process their war experience, reflect on its moral and psychological impact, and restore them to civilian life, we fail as a society to bring them all the way home. Tragically, just before he died, Kyle hinted he might be ready to come home. He wanted to slow down and just take care of his family, saying he was tired: "I'm just trying to be the me that I am and not all of this other crap."