DALLAS — Chris Kyle, reputed to be the deadliest sniper in American military history, often took veterans out shooting as a way to ease the trauma of war. Taking aim at a target, he once wrote, would help coax them back into normal, everyday life with a familiar, comforting activity.
But his death at a North Texas shooting range — allegedly at the hands of a troubled Iraq War veteran he was trying to assist — has highlighted the potential dangers of the practice.
Former soldiers and others familiar with their struggles say shooting a gun can sometimes be as therapeutic as playing with a dog or riding a horse. Psychiatrists wonder, though, whether the smell of the gunpowder and the crack of gunfire can trigger unpredictable responses, particularly in someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other illnesses that aren’t immediately obvious.
“You have to be very careful with doing those kinds of treatment,” said Dr. Charles Marmar, chairman of the psychiatry department at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “People have to be well prepared for them.”
“But obviously you would not take a person who was highly unstable and give them access to weapons,” added Marmar, who said he wasn’t commenting on the suspected shooter’s mental state. “That’s very different.”
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he has heard of exposure to weapons being helpful to some veterans who weren’t keen on meeting with a psychiatrist or undergoing therapy sessions.
“These types of programs can often be an on-ramp for people who won’t go to any other type of program,” Rieckhoff said. “Anything that is connected to the military culture is an easier bridge to cross.”
However, he said, therapy with guns is not “incredibly common right now.”
Former soldiers sometimes take solace in target shooting and use it to reconnect with other veterans, said Rieckhoff and Tim McCarty, a former Air Force staff sergeant who now works at a gun range.
After he left the Air Force in 2011, McCarty said he felt confused as he went from being a valued member of the military to a civilian looking for a job. He found refuge at a gun range, where he started out mowing the lawn. He is now helping to develop a training program for new range shooters.
“It’s just a familiarity thing. It’s comforting,” McCarty said of firing a gun. “I don’t want to say it’s a way to hang onto the past, but for a lot of guys, the military was the last thing they knew, and it was one of the best times of their lives, and it’s a way to hang onto that.”
Kyle wrote about going on shooting retreats with wounded veterans in his best-seller, “American Sniper.” The publisher, HarperCollins, says Kyle had more than 150 confirmed kills during his service, although the Pentagon did not corroborate that total.
“We go hunting a couple of times a day, shoot a few rounds on the range, then at night trade stories and beers,” wrote Kyle, who also organized a nonprofit to give in-home fitness equipment to wounded veterans.
“It’s not so much the war stories as the funny stories that you remember. Those are the ones that affect you. They underline the resilience of these guys — they were warriors in the war, and they take that same warrior attitude into dealing with their disabilities.”
Kyle and a friend, Chad Littlefield, had taken Eddie Ray Routh to the gun range Saturday. Routh, a 25-year-old Marine veteran, was accused of fatally shooting both men and remained jailed Tuesday on murder charges.
Police records suggest Routh was struggling with mental illness, though it’s not clear whether Kyle and Littlefield knew of those issues.
Routh was taken to a psychiatric hospital twice in recent months, including on Sept. 2 after he threatened to kill his family and himself, according to police records in the Dallas suburb of Lancaster. Authorities found Routh walking around with no shirt and no shoes, and smelling of alcohol.
Routh told authorities he was suffering from PTSD. His mother told police her son had been drinking and became upset when his father said he was going to sell his gun. She said Routh began arguing with them and said he was going to “blow his brains out.”
“Eddie stated he was hurting and that his family does not understand what he has been through,” the police report said.
Gunfire can have unpredictable consequences for someone struggling with the aftermath of war, said Dr. Harry Croft, a San Antonio psychiatrist who has worked with veterans suffering from PTSD.
“The smell of the gunpowder, the flash from the gun, the sight, the sound,” Croft said. “All of that can trigger a response … that the person’s not aware of.”
Croft said he considered gun therapy a “bad idea in the main,” although he acknowledged that target shooting could be a welcome diversion for some people. He also pointed to the high rate of veteran suicides — estimated at about 22 a day.
“I believe that until treatment occurs, being around guns is probably not a good idea,” Croft said.
Rieckhoff said he was worried about veterans’ illnesses being painted with a broad brush after Kyle’s death, adding that more research and more programs to treat veterans were necessary. Guns might be a part of that discussion, he added, but were neither a panacea nor a huge danger.
“We’re not going to just start handing out guns to everybody and say, ‘Hey, this is going to help you with PTSD,’ any more than we would hand out dogs or medication,” Rieckhoff said.