- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2015

He was known as the most deadly sniper in American history, but life after his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be an even more tragic battleground for Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose story is told in the film “American Sniper,” starring Bradley Cooper, which opens nationwide Friday.

Appropriately enough, the film, directed by Clint Eastwood, had its D.C. premiere at the Navy Memorial, with military personnel, veterans advocates and politicians — including Vice President Joseph R. Biden — in attendance. But amid the red carpet and flashbulbs tracing Mr. Cooper’s every move was an air of genuine concern for the well-being of American’s veterans.

“One of the biggest problems is the American public, and people in general, don’t recognize the struggle that soldiers are going through when they come home,” said Rachael Murray, director of entertainment for the USO of Metropolitan New York. “They don’t recognize how hard it is to talk to their families, what an obstacle it is for them to even talk to their comrades about what is happening. It’s a very difficult situation.

“So the biggest thing is to bring the awareness and to have the public recognize it, to make it OK to say, ‘We understand. You are tough, and you’ve been out there, and you’ve done all the great stuff, but we’re here, and we know what it must be like to have to come back and try to reintegrate into society.’”

The film also reflects a cultural sea change that has the public at large praising veterans, even for serving in campaigns with which they may personally disagree.

In the Vietnam era, soldiers were often spat upon when they returned from Southeast Asia. Hollywood films of that era, such as “Taxi Driver,” “Coming Home” and “First Blood,” often portrayed Vietnam veterans bearing some form of psychopathy.

PHOTOS: Awesome rifles: The best and the baddest

But here, “after 40 years of Hollywood counterpropaganda telling us war is necessarily corrupting and malign, its ablest practitioners thugs, loons or victims, ‘American Sniper’ nobly presents the case for the other side,” said New York Post critic Kyle Smith.

To some extent, Hollywood ratified that new era Thursday at the Academy Award nominations, which put “American Sniper” up for six Oscars, including best picture and Mr. Cooper for best actor.

The nominations were submitted despite mounting criticism of the film from liberal and leftist quarters as whitewashing Kyle’s life, especially after his military career, and as being a piece of flag-waving jingoism.

David Edelstein of New York magazine called the film “scandalously blinkered” and accused Mr. Eastwood of making “a Republican platform movie.”

Regardless of the politics, Ryan M. Gallucci, deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, is thankful for the changing attitudes toward veterans.

“That’s actually one of the reasons why I sought out to work for an organization like the VFW,” Mr. Gallucci said at the Navy Memorial event Tuesday. “My father served in Korea, and when he came home, he recounted those stories about not really being able to share that he had served in the military or that he was as proud of his military service as he was.”

SEE ALSO: American Sniper: Oscar best picture nomination

Mr. Gallucci gives much of the credit for the shift to the Vietnam generation’s “changing the narrative” for when he and his colleagues returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as thanks to advocacy groups like his own.

The Vietnam generation “took the Veterans Administration from being a low-level administration all the way to a Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs,” Mr. Gallucci said.

Of the embattled agency, Taya Kyle, the widow of Chris Kyle, was quick to say that despite changes in the right direction since last year’s scandals broke, much needs to be done for veterans and their families.

“Hopefully, they’ll continue to get better care for veterans,” Mrs. Kyle said. “There are also a lot of private charities that are developing all the time,” such as the Chris Kyle Frog foundation.

The statistics for marital discord in homes where a spouse has served in the military are as sobering as they are for veteran suicide. Mrs. Kyle said the charity named for her late husband works less on the mental health aspects and more on maintaining the relationships of first responders and veterans.

“Maybe that’s the beauty of the failures of the government,” she said, “is that the private sector comes up and brings their hearts to the table in a lot of ways.”

In fact, an effort to help another veteran, not the gun of an Iraqi insurgent, is what ultimately eventually cost Kyle his life.

He and friend Chad Littlefield took 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran Eddie Ray Routh to a shooting range in Texas in February 2013 to help him with possible post-traumatic stress disorder. According to authorities, Mr. Routh shot and killed the two other men.

Kyle’s memorial services were held in one of America’s biggest stadiums — the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas — and the 200-mile funeral procession down Interstate 35 to the Texas State Cemetery in Austin was lined with hundreds of locals and out-of-state residents to honor him.

Mr. Cooper portrays Chris Kyle in his Academy Award-nominated performance in “American Sniper.” The actor, who has done a tremendous amount of outreach on behalf of veterans, thoroughly got into Kyle’s mindset for the role, even training hard on the sniper’s favored weapons.

“He used three sniper rifles on the four tours,” Mr. Cooper told The Washington Times. These included the Mark 11 sniper rifle, the .300 Winchester Magnum sniper rifle and the .338 Lapua.

“I love all of them,” Mr. Cooper said of the firearms. “I guess the Mark 11 is sort of the best one, but the .338 [is the one] that he hit [his target] at the 2,100 yards.”

Asked whether it was strange to see Mr. Cooper impersonate Chris Kyle, Mrs. Kyle acknowledged that she and her husband met with Mr. Cooper frequently during his research into the role.

“Now it just seems so natural and so perfect, because Bradley has this incredible heart and soul and a real depth to his person that I don’t think a lot of people have seen before,” Mrs. Kyle said. “So he was able to absorb all of this complex emotion that a warrior goes through, that Chris went through, and he absorbed it all, and I felt [he] beautifully presented that to the world. And I think that’s a real testament to his abilities.”

In the spirit of Bob Hope, Ms. Murray maintains that bringing the film to veterans and soldiers across the U.S. and around the world — often with Mr. Cooper in tow — has been a way to entertain and to offer thanks.

“I am not a veteran,” Ms. Murray said. “However, my father, my grandfather and great-grandfather were. So I am a military kid.

“Bradley has been overseas six or seven times going to see troops,” she said. “We have these fantastic stars who uphold [Hope’s] tradition.”

Of the VA’s and other enterprises’ efforts to reintegrate veterans back into society, Mr. Gallucci said, “It’s still not perfect. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but it has made the integration a lot better for this generation of veterans.”

When not hopping the globe either to shoot a project — “American Sniper” was partially shot on location in Morocco — or to visit with America’s heroes, Mr. Cooper, who attended Georgetown as an undergraduate student, said he often returns to the nation’s capital, if for no other reason than to revisit his college haunts.

“I like to just suit up and walk around,” he said.

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide