The wife of ‘American Sniper’ Chris Kyle
shares her thoughts on love, loss and healing.
By Allan Richter
In the first 10 years of his marriage, US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was deployed to Iraq for four combat tours. From 1999 to 2009, Kyle became the most lethal sniper in American history, a period chronicled in his memoir American Sniper (William Morrow) and last year’s Clint Eastwood-directed film of the same name.
When Kyle was about to return to his North Texas home for the last time, he couldn’t relax. He kept reliving his combat experiences, especially when he was shot. His heart raced, his blood pressure spiked, he sweated and his hands shook. “Imagine climbing a tall ladder out over a river, a thousand miles up, and there you’re struck by lightning. Your body becomes electric, but you’re still alive. In fact, you’re not only aware of everything that’s happening, but you know you can deal with it. You know what you have to do to get down,” Kyle wrote in his memoir.
“So you do. You climb down. But when you’re back on the ground, the electricity won’t go away. You try to find a way to discharge that electricity, to ground yourself, but you can’t find the damn lightning rod to take the electricity away.”
Months after returning home, Kyle continued to struggle and started drinking. In the film, he suffers from hypersensitivity and is seen about to attack the family dog, a perceived threat to his daughter, on an idyllic day in the family yard.
Kyle later found strength and peace in bonding with other veterans and helping them bridge their military and civilian lives. One of those veterans, a former marine, shot and killed Kyle, 38, and his friend Chad Littlefield at a gun range in February 2013. He was convicted of capital murder in February.
Kyle’s widow, Taya, 41, chronicled her struggles and her efforts to honor her husband with the foundation she created, the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation, in her own memoir, American Wife (William Morrow). (Chris Kyle had a tattoo of a frog skeleton, a symbol of fallen SEALS, on his right shoulder.) Taya Kyle spoke of those battles and efforts in an interview from her home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where she lives with her and Chris’ young children, Bubba and Angel.
Energy Times: First, how are you and your children doing?
Taya Kyle: We’re doing really well. It’s been a long process but, you know, they say kids are resilient. I think they get through it faster. It’s very profound, it’s very deep, but I think they’re used to everything changing so often for them that life moves at a rapid speed. They find a way to find joy and they bring joy.
I really do owe it to my kids to find joy and figure out a way to compartmentalize. So I think I’m doing better, I guess, is my point. We really are blessed to have a strong foundation; Chris loved us. I think it was Maya Angelou who said, “People will forget what you say, and they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget the way you made them feel.” That’s the gift that Chris gave us. We all felt very loved. We don’t have to doubt that.
ET: Tell me about the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation and its goals.
TK: The goal is to honor God and country by serving families who serve, military and first-responder families. The Bible says that God comes first, marriage comes second and children come third, and if you do it in that order everyone is happiest. We’re trying to follow that model and help people with their marriages, because we believe that will help the children. We’ve seen from experience that, for a lot of people, their service ends up being [at the expense] of their family and their marriage. I think the divorce rate is in the 80% and 90% range for those groups. I think it was a 95% divorce rate when Chris was in the field at that time; I think it’s better now but not much.
We want to have families thrive while they serve and let their children see that that’s possible. But it requires some effort and some time together. When you’re serving others all the time, and when you’re in these traumatic situations, eventually you get to the point where you internalize it, or you don’t talk about it, you don’t accept help from others, because you are the service provider.
I’m finding that it’s very emotional and we’re able to give people a weekend away. They’re brought to tears by the idea that there are people who do care and donate. There are companies, CEOs and resort owners who care, and everybody comes together to give them time and show them that they’re more than just a uniform. They’re a whole person with a host of things on their plate.
ET: You wrote in American Wife that a goal of the foundation is to provide experiences that help families reconnect. What else does the foundation offer to that end?
TK: What we also know to be true is that a nice trip is good, but it can’t be ‘one and done.’ So we’re constantly working on ways to enrich the experience, to have mentors, to have a network to put these people in touch with each other so they don’t feel so alone, and to give them resources. Right now we’re providing a concierge, white-glove sort of service where we’ll find the childcare that works for them, for example. We handle all the details, soup to nuts, and try to give them time together.
When I look back on my life with Chris I have cherished memories. One of those is a weekend in a hotel in Ohio that we ended up getting as a gift from my mother. It’s one of my favorite memories even though we didn’t do anything. We napped and we cuddled and we watched movies and ordered room service, and it was wonderful because it was just us and no expectations, no demands. Sometimes I think a little thing like that gives you months and months of renewed faith in your relationship and love.
We’re finding that the people we help, which is so typical of service members, is that you help them, and they want to reach out to help someone also. It ends up being this amazing, strong network of people who don’t want to be the only ones to be better; they want to help everyone else be better, too. It’s just a really cool thing.
ET:That was so true of Chris, too. After having difficulty adjusting to civilian life, he found happiness and healing in helping other veterans.
TK: That’s absolutely true. He was so uncomfortable with the idea of a book because he just wanted to be the guy in the background. The book got a dialogue started, and it grew into one-on-one time with people. He always spent one-on-one time with people because that was his nature. People reached out to him, and he reached out to them in a way that was really comfortable and organic. People trusted him, and he trusted them.
It ended up being an act of service because it gave him more of a way to help touch lives. I remember having that conversation with him. I said, “Babe, you’re still serving. You’re still serving through this book and the things that you do.” And I remember he paused and had to kind of consider it for a minute because he felt like serving others was an integral part of who he was, and he wasn’t sure he did it in a meaningful way anymore. But he started to see that it was meaningful; it was just different.
ET: Tell me about how helping other veterans helped heal Chris.
TK: It did, absolutely. It was such a part of his personality that when you look back on his life, and the things people tell me about when he was a kid or in high school, people to this day talk about his protective nature in just a calm, confident, no-BS kind of way.
ET: So his helping others brought back the person he was before deployment.
TK: Yes. That was such a part of his personality even as a kid, that without being in active service, I don’t think he would have felt complete. He felt he let his country down when he got out of the military, he really did, and that was very hard for me to understand. And I’ve talked to so many wives who feel the same way. I got a text the other day from a SEAL wife who said, “I’ve said those exact words: ‘You’ve done your part.’” It gives me chills because the words that other wives have said are verbatim. And I get it now. It’s just something that’s part of the personality of these guys or women.
ET: And that when it’s gone it’s like they’ve lost a piece of themselves.
TK: Exactly. That’s exactly it. And they feel like they are letting their country down. They feel that they are quitters.
ET: How did you get to the optimistic state of mind that you are in now from the grieving and depression you felt after Chris died?
TK: It’s only over the last few days truly that I’m realizing that there’s a part of me that has to change and grow in a way that I haven’t done. There’s a part of me that felt like true joy was going to be impossible, and so it wasn’t even something that I should concern myself with. I know I could have my moments of happiness, and I know life could be okay, but I just thought I’ll never have that whole feeling again, that I’m whole. I had a friend, a military guy, text me, and I thought it was so profound.
He asked me if there was something I need. And I said just friendship and prayer to allow myself to embrace joy and focus on long-term happiness. And he said joy is not an emotion; it’s a choice. Like faith, it’s a decision. He said it’s okay to be joyful. Being joyful is not the opposite of mourning. It’s the understanding of mourning and the power of faith and grace. It’s okay to be happy, laugh, live, love and thrive, because while we know and feel the gaps, and we miss and we cry, we also live.
ET: So it means it’s not one or the other. You can still have that hole, but you can also live. And the other part of that is you have to be proactive, you have to pursue it and not let life happen to you.
TK: That’s true. I love the part about understanding mourning and the power of faith and grace. You can say it’s by the grace of God that I don’t have to live in the pit of despair, and it’s by my faith that I know it’s okay, because God wants me to have joy. And if I can have joy even though I’ve lost, that makes me even stronger because it says I can handle the reality of this world. It’s only in recent days that I’m saying real joy is still possible. I really thought that was gone, but I’m learning it’s a choice, it’s an absolute choice.
ET: You wrote in American Wife about how color therapy helped you. Tell me about color therapy.
TK: Essentially our brain has the ability to interpret emotions with color before we have the words to associate with emotion. So it identifies what emotions are overwhelming you without you having to talk, and without you having to relive every horrible moment. You can look at the colors, and the therapist can identify the feelings. It also shows the mind-body connection. If I’m looking at a color and the therapist asks me where I feel that, I all of a sudden recognize there is a feeling in my body, and I say, “You know what, I feel it in my stomach” or “I feel it in my throat.” That’s a diagnostic tool as well.
ET: After Chris’ death, you endured intense grief, were depressed, started smoking and didn’t take care of your health. What are you doing these days to be healthy and stay fit?
TK: I’ve always been healthy, but I did get really unhealthy after Chris was killed. I’m doing a few things. One is I’m having the courage to go to sleep at night, and I say courage because a lot of times my sleep was disturbed and I was avoiding it. It was painful or my mind was on too many other things. So now I’m trying to go to bed earlier, and I take little naps during the day, 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there, because I work from home or if I’m traveling I can nap on the road. And I’m getting back to working out basically by playing with my kids. So I’m jumping in the pool, or I’m jumping on the trampoline with them. The other thing I’m doing, which was probably the biggest change, is to have the courage to face what I’m feeling and to just stop and breathe and calm myself instead of just pushing through it.
ET: So you’re embracing your emotions rather than holding them in and ignoring them.
TK: Right. I didn’t have time for anything. It was too stressful, too big, too overwhelming, or I’d just keep pushing and working and trying to stop the emotion. Now I can feel the emotions and I feel like I’m confident I can control it, where before I was afraid that if I felt it, it would consume me.
ET: Are you eating more healthfully? You wrote about relying on fast food a lot.
TK: In the morning I had some fruit and eggs with arugula. Then I had a healthy lunch of barbecue chicken. I do my best when I can, but life is busy and sometimes I’m going to stop at Sonic. I also take a really high-quality probiotic. And I think with stress I’ve lost a lot of hair, so a lot of times when you see pictures of me with thick hair I’ve put in some clips. So I’ve been taking some biotin, for hair and nails, and a multivitamin, and a powdered drink that has some vitamin B.
And since I’ve cut out the smoking, I also drink a lot more water.
ET: Your husband’s killer had said he had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Medical experts for both the defense and the prosecution testified that he did not have PTSD, and jurors ultimately decided that he was using mental illness as an excuse. Yet some observers of the trial predicted that his use of PTSD as an excuse was likely to perpetuate stereotypes about PTSD and increase the stigma long associated with the affliction. Are you concerned about that?
TK: I worried about it before the trial, because there was no way to talk about it or combat it. I couldn’t talk about it until the case was over. But since the trial there is information if people care enough to do the research, and I don’t think that people do that. And so I’m hoping that the murder trial didn’t have any more impact on PTSD because, as you and I both know, when something is scattered out in the media early on it has a way of sticking, and people are still surprised to know that he didn’t have PTSD. So, yeah, I’m still invested in getting the word out that he didn’t so nobody has to wear that scarlet letter, because this is not accurate. But if people care enough to look and spread the word, then we can make sure it doesn’t [add to the stigma].
One of the reasons I was so passionate about that is that I know there is a large number of people who have PTSD legitimately, and they are running their families, they are carrying guns, they are working in justice-related fields. It doesn’t make them murderers. We have to understand that they’re going to have mood swings, they’re going to have a hard time sleeping. They unfortunately might be in danger of hurting themselves. But there are a lot of alternative therapies out there. We just can’t give up. And the families, the service members themselves can’t give up on finding the solution that works for them, because not every solution is going to work for everyone.
And we can’t make excuses. I don’t think you can say, “I have PTSD, therefore everybody should tolerate my bad behavior.” No, absolutely not. You have to have personal accountability and try to find help, and we have to have people around us who say what they said to me: “Taya, if you fall into that ditch, it’s okay, because I’m not going to let you stay there. I’m going to help get you out.”
ET: In his memoir, Chris never mentions PTSD or stress, certainly not in regard to his own health and well-being. Nonetheless, the feelings he describes—and some of the scenes in the film that show his hypersensitivity—indicate some serious stress. Did he have PTSD?
TK: Everybody can see what symptoms he had yet it’s something he never talked about publicly so I never do. But, like you said, if you look at what he was dealing with and you look at his symptoms, you know he was hurting and you know he was suffering. There’s nobody that can live through all of that and not have those symptoms of stress. Whether it’s a full diagnosis or just something you live with, he never talked about it, but I think it’s pretty apparent when you look at what he went through and his symptoms.
ET: This holiday season will be the third your family will be without Chris. How do you cope during the holidays?
TK: I’ve really been working on appreciation. For example, on Memorial Day Chris and I would go to the closest national cemetery and we would pray and cry and acknowledge, and then we would go out and have a dang good time with our friends or have a barbecue or do something. To me that’s kind of a good way of living a good balanced life. Take your moments to pray, to cry, to acknowledge, and then to honor what somebody else has given you by having joy and appreciating what their sacrifice was all about. If it’s all mourning and grief and pain, it doesn’t do their life any justice, and it doesn’t honor their life. I’ve really been working on that, to appreciate what Chris gave in life and what he set our family up for as far as the people and experiences and relationships we have because of him and his life, to not have guilt and pain associated with every single memory or experience, but to have more of a joyful appreciation for having lived that life and giving us these opportunities to see the good in the world because of the good he did.