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Who Was American Sniper Chris Kyle?

2 minute read

This week, Chris Kyle is in the news because American Sniper, the new movie based on his memoir, has broken January box-office records and been nominated for a half-dozen Oscars. About two years ago, however, the late Navy SEAL made news for a much more tragic reason: on Feb. 2, 2013, he had been killed at a shooting range in Texas.

TIME’s Mark Thompson profiled the famous gunman shortly after, and the piece provides a slew of answers for any American Sniper viewers curious about the man behind the movie. Though his tale is now common knowledge, it’s not necessarily an easy story to wrap one’s mind around. Kyle was, as Thompson points out, a man of contradictions. He hated water, but joined the Navy; he didn’t want to glorify himself, but his memoir was a best-seller; he was an expert killer, but he also wanted to help people.

His mission in Iraq was simple: provide what the military calls overwatch protection so the Marines under his gaze could do their jobs without fear of insurgent ambushes. Kyle, who was credited with 160 confirmed kills, conceded he was in the right place at the right time to become perhaps the world’s greatest sniper. “I’m not the greatest shot there is,” he remarked. “I just happened to be the one that was put in there, got lucky enough to see plenty of combat and been able to take the shots.”

Unlike most troops, the goal of snipers is one shot, one kill. They work stealthily, often in pairs, one spotting for the other. “You just view these guys as the terrorists that they are,” he said. “So you’re not really viewing them as a person. They’re out there, they’re bad people, and you just take them out and you don’t think twice about it.”

But Kyle viewed the troops he served with as people—his people—and felt their pain when they went home less than whole. He resolved to do what he could to help.

Read the full story from the Feb. 18, 2013, issue of TIME: Killer. Healer. Victim.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com