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January 31, 2015 08:05 AM

Taya Kyle opens up about the love she had with the real American Sniper Chris Kyle and the film that is his legacy. Subscribe now for instant access to this emotional, exclusive PEOPLE interview.

His public persona was steely-eyed and stoic, but at home with his two kids, American Sniper‘s Chris Kyle was a goofball.

“He acted like a big kid,” Chris’s widow, Taya Kyle, tells PEOPLE in an interview for this week’s cover story. Whenever he was around, she adds, “it was three times as exciting and fun.”

Chris, who came to be known as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, was often away from home while he served four tours of duty in Iraq. In 2009, he quit the military to devote more time to his family. “He was finding this real peace and joy being able to see his kids every day,” says Taya, 40.

That joy was cut tragically short when Chris was fatally shot on a Texas gun range at age 38 in 2013 by a fellow veteran allegedly suffering from PTSD.

“I feel like [the kids] got robbed because they don t get to see what I would see when I would look at him look at them: the twinkle in his eye and the pure joy and the pride,” says Taya. “They had the epitome of a father – a guy who had a good Christian soul, who held them to a high standard of respect and manners and played with them until they were hysterically laughing.”

Oscar-nominated Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall, who met the Navy SEAL nine months or so after he was honorably discharged, says he saw Chris brighten around his kids.

When Chris first returned home, “He was real busted up,” says Hall. “He was in his thirties at the time but he looked like he was 50 or 60.”

But when Hall observed Chris kneel in front of his children to talk to them, “I saw this look on his face,” he says. “I saw this lightness. His eyes lit up for his kids.”

Chris wanted to be with his children whenever he could, says Taya. “He was the kind of dad who was like, ‘First day of school? No, I’m not going to have a business trip.'”

He enjoyed accompanying Taya to school parties and got so much “joy watching the kids’ sporting events,” she says. “He had the greatest belly laugh. We would love watching America s Funniest Home Videos together. He would just roll over laughing.”

He was also good at showing his kids how much he loved them, she says. “He had that strong sense about him, along with that soft, loving side,” she says. “You could always cuddle with him and it was always, I love you, with a big hug.

In his roughest times, they had his affection and so did I,” she says. “I feel blessed that they were old enough to know that, because they will have that forever and they feel that today, still.”

For more on Taya and Chris, their life together and the love story behind American Sniper, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

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