‘American Sniper’ Chris Kyle exaggerated medal count, records reveal

New documents question claims that Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL and author of the book “American Sniper,” made about his time at war. (File photo)
New documents question claims that Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL and author of the book “American Sniper,” made about his time at war. (File photo)

Newly published documents reveal that “American Sniper” Chris Kyle was not part of the elite group of U.S. fighters to earn one of the nation’s top three combat medals on more than one occasion during the global war on terrorism, as he claimed in his bestselling autobiography.

Kyle, a former Navy SEAL who was murdered by a disturbed fellow veteran in 2013, wrote that he had received two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. The Silver Star, the third-highest combat decoration, is awarded for gallantry in action. Being recognized for exhibiting the highest levels of battlefield heroism more than once is rare.

“Receiving two Silver Stars would have put him in a very unique and small group,” said Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran and author of “Restoring Valor: One Couple’s Mission to Expose Fraudulent War Heroes and Protect America’s Military Awards System.”

In this image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Kyle Gallner, left, and Bradley Cooper appear in a scene from
In this image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Kyle Gallner, left, and Bradley Cooper appear in a scene from “American Sniper.” The film is based on the autobiography by Chris Kyle. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Sterner, who is also a longtime investigator and archivist of military valor awards, said he suspected for several years that the medal count former Navy SEAL Kyle wrote about in “American Sniper” wasn’t accurate, but until now he had not shared his suspicions publicly.

“There was that 1 percent chance that he did get two Silver Stars and one of them was classified,” Sterner told Yahoo News. “As long as there’s that 1 percent chance, [I wasn’t] going to accuse somebody of inflating their record.”

That changed Wednesday when the Intercept, an investigative reporting website, published government documents revealing Kyle earned one Silver Star during his decade of military service and four deployments. Navy officials confirmed the records.

On page 149 of his autobiography, which became a blockbuster war film starring Bradley Cooper in 2014, Kyle wrote, “I would end my career as a SEAL with two Silver Stars.”

According to Sterner, who helped launch the Military Times’ Hall of Valor online database, only a dozen U.S. service members — five Navy, four Army and three Air Force personnel — have been recognized with the top battlefield awards more than once since the war on terror began nearly 15 years ago.

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Kyle, known as the deadliest sniper in military history, wrote of 160 confirmed kills. His murder in 2013 came three years after he left the Navy. His assailant, who suffers from mental health problems, is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting Kyle, who died at age 38.

The Intercept obtained Kyle’s records through a Freedom of Information Act request for all documentation related to Kyle’s medals. In his book, which has sold more than a million copies, Kyle also states that he received five Bronze Star with valor medals, an award for nonaerial heroic actions against the enemy.

“I’m proud of my service, but I sure as hell didn’t do it for any medal,” Kyle wrote in his book. “They don’t make me any better or less than any other guy who served. Medals never tell the whole story. And like I said, in the end they’ve become more political than accurate. I’ve seen men who deserved a lot more and men who deserved a lot less rewarded by higher-ups negotiating for whatever public cause they were working on at the time. For all these reasons, they are not on display at my house or in my office.”

A one-page summary of Kyle’s military career, known as a service member’s DD214, lists two Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars for him. But more detailed records from Kyle’s personnel file only reflect one Silver Star and three Bronze stars instead of the five he wrote about.

Navy officials, according to the Intercept, could not explain why Kyle’s separation papers contained conflicting information about his medals. The publication said one official described Kyle as a “decorated war hero” and questioned the “motivations” of digging into Kyle’s service record.

“The Navy considers the individual service member’s official military personnel file and our central official awards records to be the authoritative sources for verifying entitlement to decorations and awards,” Cullen James, a spokesperson for the Navy Personnel Command, said in a written statement to the Intercept. “The form DD214 is generated locally at the command where the service member is separated. Although the information on the DD214 should match the official records, the process involves people and inevitably some errors may occur.”

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An unidentified former SEAL officer who knew Kyle told Intercept reporters that it was widely known Kyle exaggerated his record.

“The SEAL leadership was aware of the embellishment, but didn’t want to correct the record because Kyle’s celebrity status reflected well on the command,” the Intercept quoted the ex-SEAL as saying.

A year after his death, a jury found that Kyle lied in “American Sniper” about punching out former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura at a California bar. Kyle’s widow, Taya Kyle, was ordered to pay Ventura $1.8 million in defamation damages.

Taya Kyle, who is on tour promoting her book, “American Wife,” declined to comment through a spokesperson on the reported discrepancy with her husband’s combat awards.

Sterner said he struggles to understand why decorated war heroes feel the need to inflate their medal count.

“That’s probably one of the hardest things for me to understand,” Sterner said. “Men and women who do heroic things are also humans who make mistakes. It does not negate the heroic service that he had, but it does correct the record.”

Jason Sickles is a national reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).

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