Two days before Christmas 2012, Taya Kyle and her husband Chris were baking biscuits in the kitchen of their Texas home with their two children, when they all spontaneously started carol-singing. It had been quite a year for the 38-year-old US Navy Seal, whose autobiography, American Sniper, had become an international sensation.
A film version – directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller – was in the works, and TV companies across America were vying to get the decorated Iraq war veteran to speak to them. “Oh God, I thought to myself,” recalls Taya, “let this moment go on forever.”
On a Saturday afternoon two months later, three local pastors stood in that same kitchen, there to tell Taya that her husband had been shot dead by a post-traumatic stress disorder-afflicted fellow veteran he was trying to help.
“There is a silver lining to the pain,” Kyle’s 40 year-old widow says now, nearly two and a half years on. “And that’s that I appreciated every moment right up until the day Chris died. And maybe I wouldn’t have done if it weren’t always at the back of my mind that it would end. I saved every single one of Chris’s emails. Why else would I do that? Because I deleted every one I sent him. I wasn’t worried about what would be left of me.”
In her new memoir, American Wife – co-written by American Sniper co-author, Jim DeFelice – Taya has described in poignant detail what is left of her and her dreams. “I’ve been so afraid that I would forget things about Chris, and now at least I feel a sense of relief that I have preserved some of those memories,” she tells me. “Chris achieved more in his young life than most people do in their whole lifetime. He wanted to be a cowboy and in the military, and he did both of those things, as well as giving me two beautiful kids [Angel, 8, and Bubba, 10].
“Obviously, I would give anything to have him here and see what else he could do,” she goes on, unable to hold back tears. “Or to be able to say ‘well done’. But now all I want is to see his legacy continued. And I do feel that this is a lot of peoples’ story – not just mine.”
It’s a generous sentiment, but although war widows the world over will be able to identify with Taya’s story – and glean comfort from it – both her husband’s life and death were extraordinary. As the most lethal sniper in US military history, who served four tours in Iraq and claimed 255 victims – only to die by the bullet himself – Kyle was a polarising figure. Some saw the man with the red “crusader’s cross” tattooed on his arm – a man who called the enemy “savages” in his book – as a psychopathic killing machine; others, a patriot, protector and hero. As Jason Hall, the scriptwriter of American Sniper, said: “These soldiers have to find hate or they can’t kill.”
“And that’s probably true,” nods Taya, “but I would clarify that that hate is towards terrorists who are directly threatening civilians, so what you’re hating is an evil act. Chris always said that he didn’t think of them as human, because humans as we know them can’t commit the kind of heinous crimes that terrorists are committing.”
When Taya first met Kyle, he was already a SEAL. Months after their marriage in 2002, he was sent off to the Middle East. “At the beginning, he definitely wanted to spare me a lot of the details, but I needed to know what he was going through.” Nothing, however, could have prepared Taya for the horror of her husband’s first kill: a woman carrying a child and a grenade through the streets of Nasiriyah in Iraq. “When you’re trained for battle, the idea is that it will be man against man. But when a woman and a child is the first death you deliver, it defies all reason and logic. Still, that mother had already killed her child. She did that.”
Bradley Cooper as US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in American Sniper
Taya believes now that “the same heart that made Chris a warrior made him the wonderful husband and father he was. Because that same man cared enough about the good person next to him to take on the cost of that shot – both emotionally and spiritually.”
As the years went by, the family started to count those costs. Back home on leave, Chris struggled to adjust. Often unable to leave the house for days, he began drinking too much and was prone to sudden rages. When they did go out to dinner with friends, she writes in the book: “Chris would sometimes throw things out there to see if people thought he was a monster.” Did he fear he had become one? “I think he was very confident that he wasn’t a monster,” says Taya, “because he was never in doubt about what he was doing. But he also needed to know that the people who loved him with all their heart and soul would still love him knowing what he had done. And of course I did, one hundred per cent.”
Helping veterans who, like him, were having trouble readjusting from the war turned out to be the most effective therapy for Kyle, who would take them out on organised trips to local ranches or shooting ranges. The full extent of Eddie Routh’s PTSD hadn’t been made clear to Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield when the pair took the 25 year-old Iraq veteran to a hunting lodge, where Routh shot both men dead.
Today, Taya still feels that Routh’s mother “has a burden to bear” for not warning Kyle about the gravity of her son’s condition. “All it would have taken would have been her saying to Chris: ‘Guns are not good around him right now.’ And the sad part is that he would probably still have helped the kid.”
At Routh’s trial in February, Taya was forced to sit across the dock from him as he was sentenced to life. “And when I looked at him, I felt such a deep, deep hatred,” she says. “So deep that I couldn’t focus. And although I know now that it’s best not to hate, I’m glad that Eddie is going to spend the rest of his life in prison – even though, in my mind, I’d like to erase him from the planet, erase any memory of him.”
Since Kyle’s death, Taya has discovered that good memories can be painful, too, and when her children asked her to take down “just some” of the pictures of their father from around the house, she did so without demur. Then she moved her wedding ring from her left to her right hand. Today, as the founder of the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation, devoted to strengthening the marriages of veterans and first responders, Taya finds some respite in talking to other widows.
“It’s the bond that you never want to have with another woman,” she smiles through fresh tears, “but knowing that these women have survived is so powerful. What’s heartbreaking is that even though that man has been taken from you, you never stop loving them. And maybe you’ll go on to have a new husband and children with somebody else, but you must have to grow another heart, because the one you have is still so full of that man.”
When, from the back seat of the car, her daughter recently asked her “Why doesn’t God stop bad things from happening?”, Taya was surprised to discover that at no point had her Christianity been shaken. “It’s such a normal, understandable reaction, after all. But I do believe that God knows what’s going to happen in life and does things to prepare you along the way.
"I also feel that God promises you free will, and the man who killed Chris had the free will to do that. But so much good has happened since Chris died. Had I had asked Chris: ‘Would you be willing to give your life, if you could know that all of this would come of it?’ – I’m sure he would have said ‘yes’. I’m grateful for the time that I had with Chris, and I’m sure that I will see him again.”
• American Wife: A Memoir of Love, War, Faith and Renewal (William Morrow, £18.99) is out now. To order your copy for £16.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or books.telegraph.co.uk