Taya Kyle reveals how American Sniper “brought her husband back to life” and why she trusted Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper. Subscribe now to get instant access to the real story behind Chris Kyle, in this issue of PEOPLE.
With the wide release of American Sniper this weekend, the real-life saga of the film’s subject, the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, is under a new spotlight.
Chris, who served four tours in Iraq before his death at age 38 in 2013, “was so complicated in so many ways but so simple in other ways,” his widow, Taya Kyle, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
Here are five things to know about the decorated two-time Silver Star recipient, whose nickname was “the Legend.”
1. He is widely regarded as the deadliest sniper in U.S. history.
The Odessa, Texas, native grew up hunting with his father and had uncanny aim as a marksman. He joined the Navy in 1999, and in his bestselling 2012 autobiography upon which the film is based, Kyle wrote about his first long-range kill shot. As depicted in the film’s tense trailer, Kyle opened fire as ordered on a woman approaching a group of Marines with a hand grenade. It would be the first of 160 confirmed kills, though Kyle himself pegged the number as much higher.
“I remember Chris saying that he never knew [what it was like] until that first shot … that there is no way you know until you are on the gun,” says Taya, 40.
Asked whether he regretted any of his kills, he told D Magazine, “I regret the people I couldn’t kill before they got to my boys.”
Still, he told D that he didn’t feel like a hero. “I’m just a regular guy,” he said. “I just did a job. I was in some badass situations, but it wasn’t just me. My teammates made it possible.”
“There’s an inaccurate stereotype of these guys, that they love war,” says Taya. “I can promise you, they don’t love war. But they do love that fight for what they would say is justice for each other.”
2. He was a loving dad and husband.
The father of two “had a huge heart and softness as well as strength,” says Taya. “He was such a good dad.”
But she acknowledges that his four deployments were a huge challenge for the family. “It was hard,” she says. “These guys don’t do it easily. For Chris it was, ‘This is what I trained for. I want to go back.’ ”
3. Before Chris’s death, he spoke with Cooper about the movie.
In the early stages of the film’s development, “He said if he had a choice of who would direct the movie, it would be Clint Eastwood,” Cooper said recently. “And then he had his way.”
Taya also gave Cooper and costar Sienna Miller, who portrays her in the film, email exchanges she shared with Chris while he was deployed.
“It was incredibly personal and intimate,” says Miller. “But what that does is give you a really solid and honest relationship on which to build [the performances].”
4. He was committed to helping his fellow servicemen.
After returning to civilian life, he found ways to assist others. “Chris used to always talk about how he could be of service at home,” Cooper, whose performance Taya calls “eerie” in its similarities to her late husband, said recently. “He would always say, ‘Mow a vet’s lawn, help them deal with their groceries, do anything.’ Any little thing would have a massive impact, so if this [film] can help Chris spread the message he wanted to spread, then we will all have done our job.”
Taya founded the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation to honor her late husband and help enrich military families’ relationships. “Anything we can do, I think it’s worth it for these guys who have put it all on the line,” she says.
5. He died trying to help a former Marine.
On Feb. 2, 2013, Chris and his friend Chad Littlefield took 25-year-old former Marine Eddie Ray Routh to a Texas shooting range after Routh’s mother had asked Chris for help with her son, whom she said was suffering from PTSD. Routh allegedly turned his gun on both Chris and Littlefield and is now awaiting trial for capital murder.
Before he left, “We said, ‘I love you,’ ” recalls Taya. “I said, ‘Is everything okay?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I just need to get down there and get back.’ ”
Asked about the irony of his death occurring at home after surviving such brutal odds in combat, Taya, who says she is still grappling with the “big hole” in her heart, replies, “What’s so interesting is that I was always such an over thinker anyway. I would worry about him all the time. Even eating so much bacon. And now I’m happy that he ate so much bacon.”
For much more on Chris and Taya Kyle, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
• Reporting by K.C. BAKER