The bullet that finally felled deadliest sniper
London - One man he shot from a distance of more than a mile. Another of his bullets took out not one but two men on a moped who had just planted a bomb down a manhole. Then there was the young mother, gunned down while holding a little child in one hand and a primed grenade in the other.
For all the shots fired in Iraq after the American-led invasion in 2003, US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle rarely wasted any of his. With up to 160 confirmed kills (he put the real figure at 255), he became the deadliest sniper in US military history - surpassing the total of 93 achieved by Marine Carlos Hathcock during the Vietnam War.
Kyle became so notorious that Iraqi insurgents dubbed him Al Shaitan Ramadi: the Devil of Ramadi. To his fellow American troops, however, the special forces commando was a “guardian angel” whose hawk-eyed accuracy did much to level the odds in the bloody struggle on the streets of Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah.
US forces nicknamed the former ranch hand from Texas “The Legend”. But the legend came to an end last Saturday evening at a shooting range in his home state. Ironically, the man whom the Iraqis couldn’t kill despite placing a $20 000 (£13 000) bounty on his head fell victim to a former US Marine veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kyle, 38, and a friend had taken troubled Eddie Routh to a shooting range as therapy only for Routh to shoot them dead. Routh later told his sister he wanted Kyle’s Ford pickup truck.
It was an ignominious end for a war hero whose military prowess caused a sensation in 2012 when he wrote a graphic memoir, American Sniper, about his four bloody tours of Iraq.
His gung-ho ferocity and naked hatred of enemies he described as “savages” shocked some, but the book became an instant bestseller. To date, it has sold more than 800 000 copies.
Many fans were drawn to Kyle’s unashamed patriotism and unvarnished account of modern warfare. With a large red “crusader’s cross” tattooed on one arm, he said his only regret about his work was that he hadn’t killed more.
As a sniper his job was to hide himself away in a building and then pick off any enemies he could spot as other troops moved forward - a role known as “overwatch”.
Though a trained member of the SEALs - the elite unit which conducted the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011 - Kyle was still not yet an authorised sniper when, borrowing his unit commander’s rifle, he made his first “kill” in March 2003, just two weeks into the conflict in Iraq.
Scanning the deserted main street of a small town in the Nasiriya region, he spotted a woman step out of a house with her child. Looking through the telescopic sight of a bolt-action sniper rifle, he saw a flash of yellow as the woman took something from beneath her clothing and yanked at it. It was a Chinese-made grenade and she had pulled out the pin just as a US Marine foot patrol approached.
He hesitated a moment before his commander told him to shoot. It was the first time he had killed someone with a sniper rifle. “The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her,” he wrote. Kyle was not a soldier particularly racked by conscience. The SEALs ran a gruelling sniper school and Kyle passed the course before his second Iraq tour. He believed that where most recruits failed in training was stalking - the art of sneaking into a position without being seen.
To do this, SEALs had to adapt to the hot and sweaty “ghillie” suit made out of hessian cloth on which the sniper attached hay, grass or whatever was needed to blend into the environment he was entering.
Kyle described his .338 rifle - his favourite sniper gun - as an “awesome weapon” which, when fired inside a building, produced such a powerful explosion his ears would hurt after a few shots.
Each rifle was fitted with a high-magnification telescopic sight - with, if required, infra-red or night vision ability - and a rangefinder to determine the distance to a target. Snipers would wear goggles containing miniature fans to keep the air circulating and prevent them fogging up.
A keen deer hunter, Kyle - the son of a church deacon - said he already knew how to shoot, but sniper school taught him “the science behind it all”. He would learn how far ahead of targets he needed to aim if they were running or walking, and how to adjust for elevation or the wind.
Rather more unconventionally, he also discovered he shot far more accurately if he had a wad of chewing tobacco wedged inside his cheek.
During three further tours of Iraq, The Legend would earn two Purple Hearts - the US decoration for servicemen wounded in action - and fight in every major battle against the insurgency.
In November 2004, Kyle was sent to Fallujah, by then completely in the hands of insurgents who were busy fortifying houses and mosques, and booby-trapping the streets with mines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
SEAL snipers work in pairs and their job in Fallujah was to cover the advance of US Marines into the city. As the Marines prepared to move in for the first time, Kyle and his partner dashed into a well-placed apartment building on the edge of the city.
Kyle took up a position just set back from the street window of a top-floor flat and - in a macabre touch - he and his partner used an upturned baby’s crib to rest their rifles on as they lay down on rolled-up bedding and waited. By the end of the first day, he had shot three men and his partner another two.
“After the first kill, the others come easy. I don’t have to psych myself up, or do something special mentally,” he said. “I look through the scope, get my target in the cross hairs, and kill my enemy, before he kills one of my people.”
Early in the battle for the city, Kyle was injured after a rocket-propelled grenade hit the building in which he was hiding, collapsing a wall on to his legs and pinning him there. It “hurt like hell”, he said, but he just kept shooting.
In all, he earned seven medals for bravery - two Silver Stars and five Bronze Medals. One of them he earned in Fallujah after he rescued a group of trapped Marines and two reporters.
Urging a squad of up to 20 Marines to follow him as he rushed into enemy fire, Kyle looked around to find he was alone. He kept running, regretting bitterly he was armed only with a sniper’s rifle whose 20-round magazine was pitifully inadequate.
Bored of the long waiting game of sniping, Kyle started helping the Marines clear houses of possible enemies. He almost ended up dead after bursting into one room to find a group of armed Caucasian men, some of them blonde, wearing old-style camouflage.
They stared at each other for an instant before Kyle, realising they were Russian Chechens recruited to fight for the Jihad, shot them all before they could do the same to him.
His exploits had the odd darkly humorous moment, such as the time 16 fully-armoured insurgents tried to swim a river separating them from the Americans, clinging for buoyancy to four brightly-coloured beach balls. Kyle shot each of the balls and many of the fighters drowned.
As his reputation spread, other snipers openly wondered what his secret was. “Maybe I saw a little farther, maybe I anticipated trouble better than other people,” he said. “Or, most likely, I was just lucky.”
The birth of two children back in Texas and a wife, Taya, who desperately wanted him home, did not keep Kyle away from Iraq for long. In 2006, he returned, this time to fight in Ramadi, now considered the country’s most dangerous city. Working from the top of a four- storey building, Kyle’s body count - to be official, each had to be witnessed by a comrade and result in a confirmed death - soared as insurgents poured into the city to attack the Americans.
In one incident, he spotted the passenger of a moped dropping his backpack down a manhole - clearly an IED. Kyle shot the insurgent, the bullet from his powerful sniper rifle killing both rider and passenger.
On another occasion he calmly broke off a phone conversation with his wife to fight off a fierce night attack. Unfortunately, he discovered later, he hadn’t hung up properly and she heard the entire battle.
Kyle was one of two US snipers who attracted a bounty on his head in Ramadi. The Americans even found “wanted” posters, labelling him the “devil of Ramadi” and giving such detailed information as the red cross tattoo on his arm. Kyle suspected the insurgents got information from Iraqis supposedly working for the US.
The closest he came to dying was in 2008 during his fourth Iraq deployment, in the insurgent-infested Baghdad slum neighbourhood of Sadr City. His team surrounded by more than 100 insurgents during a night patrol, Kyle was shot in the head and then, moments later, in the back. He was saved by the protective strength of his helmet and body armour.
It was in Sadr that he achieved his longest kill - and probably the longest in the history of sniping - picking off an insurgent on a roof more than a mile away as he levelled a rocket-propelled grenade at an approaching US column. Kyle retired from the Navy in 2009, forming with his friend, British Army sniper Mark Spicer, a private sniper school training police and military personnel.
When they first emerged in warfare as marksmen picking off British officers during the American War of Independence, snipers were denounced as ungentlemanly, even cowardly. Today - with their high-tech gadgetry, monstrous firepower and steely individualism - they have become the superstars of the battlefield. - Daily Mail