On Michael Mooney’s “The Legend of Chris Kyle” (D magazine, March 2013)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: After Chris Kyle, one of the best and most decorated Navy SEAL snipers in American history, is killed by a young, mentally ill veteran, Michael Mooney chronicles his life at home and on the battlefield. And most tales are legendary.

Plainly: There can’t be a greater obstacle than when the main character in a feature story dies midway through working on it. Originally, Mooney was writing a story on Kyle’s homecoming and had spent valuable time interviewing the SEAL. But after his death, Mooney had to get back into the field and re-report as the entire story changed. [We talked about this, and other cool things, in this Q&A.]

The story’s theme is one that may otherwise be a weakness in any other story. But here, the problem of not being able to verify many of the renowned stories about Kyle became its greatest strength. The theme is in the title.

The first of these legendary stories, and likely one of the most unverifiable, is the lead, where Kyle kills two men trying to steal his truck. Mooney says that, prior to Kyle’s death, the story kept getting pushed back because he could not find the tapes or any witnesses or police records to verify this event. But instead of scrapping it due to this issue, the issue became the whole point, and it is illustrated through this story and a large handful of the others with language like, Tales of his success in combat trickled back to his team. … During one firefight, it was reported that Kyle ran through a hail of bullets to pull a wounded Marine to safety.” It helps that, because of hearing stories like these, even his own teammates referred to him as “The Legend.”

One major highlight of this story’s success is the elaborate characterization of Chris Kyle before delving into the chronology of life events before his death—fitting in this sort of elevated obituary for this iconic soldier:

He was a brutal warrior but a gentle father and husband. He was a patient instructor, and he was a persistent, sophomoric jokester. If he had access to your Facebook account, he might announce to all your friends and family that you’re gay and finally coming out of the closet. If he wanted to make you squirm, he might get hold of your phone and scroll through your photos threatening to see if you kept naked pictures of your girlfriend. … Kyle liked when people thought of him as a dumb hillbilly, but he had a remarkable ability to retain information, whether it was a mission briefing, the details of a business meeting, or his encyclopedic knowledge of his own hero, Vietnam-era Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock.

Mooney called it an “expository section.” Notice the bridge between the last sentence of this section and the first of the next one—connecting this characterization section with the beginning of the chronology: “With his family, and with training people, helping people, he had found a new purpose. Chris Kyle could do anything if he had a purpose. He’d been like that since he was a little boy.” And then:HE WAS THE SON OF A CHURCH DEACON AND a Sunday school teacher.” The details in this section and those following piece together the rest of Kyle’s character: Kyle standing up for a high school friend being picked on, then Kyle willing to take bullets for “his boys” in battle, then Kyle knocking unconscious the guy who Kyle’s best friend caught his girlfriend with.

A lot of the anecdotes Mooney include illustrate Kyle’s selfless commitment to his family and his brothers. He had quit SEALS so his marriage wouldn’t be at risk. He didn’t want to take profit from his book so he could donate it to families of fallen teammates and a charity helping wounded veterans. It seems that all of the stories—some verified, others not—lead up to the reason that Kyle, along with his friend Chad Littlefield, took the troubled vet to the shooting range on February 2. Trying to help out a veteran, a brother.

Following the memorial, in which one former commander says, “Though we feel sadness and loss, know this: legends never die. Chris Kyle is not gone,” Mooney takes us back to the gas station scene. Here, he admits this is something that can’t ever be proven. But he shows why, still yet, the point is that it doesn’t need to be—the essence of legends.

Check out the Q&A with Mooney on the making of this story here.