When the movie the American Sniper came out, millions of people were introduced to the Hollywood version of Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper. The movie only helped to propel the legend status of Chris and his accomplishments as a Navy Seal. On February 2, 2013, Chris was killed by a mentally-ill veteran he was trying to help cope with PTSD.
I did not know Chris Kyle, but I was honored to be part of a ceremony in Dallas last week in which Phil Taylor, the artist who founded the American Fallen Soldiers Project along with his wife Lisa, presented a portrait of Chris Kyle’s likeness to his parents, Wayne and Debby Kyle. Over the years Phil and his wife Lisa have become dear friends of ours and I have had the opportunity to attend several of his portrait presentations honoring our fallen comrades who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Each ceremony is special in its own way and there is rarely a dry eye in the room. To most of us, it’s a portrait. To the family, it’s a reconnection to the one they loved and lost. Mothers touch the paintings with the softness that only a mother has, as if she were touching her baby’s face. Fathers often hold their heads down only to look back up, taking in short glances at the canvas carrying to likeness of his lost son while recounting stories. Such was the scene when Chris’s portrait was unveiled to the family last Saturday.
Chris was not killed in combat. But his loss is no less a burden to bear for those he left behind. Abraham Lincoln said in his last inaugural speech “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." for Lincoln himself knew the burden of war and loss. This burden is now carried by the Kyle family, for despite his legendary status, Chris was a son, brother, father and husband, he was in every way human and that is what made this portrait presentation special.
To Wayne and Debby Kyle, Chris was not the Navy Seal or the American Sniper; he was just their son. The little kid that ran around the house, the boy that grew up, got married and provided them with grandchildren. Chris was the love of their life. Phil Taylor’s mission was to give his parents a piece of their son back by painting Chris the way the family would see him, and not the steel-eyed American Sniper the public knows him as now. Chris was everything American, Texas born and raised, tall, country and patriotic with a smile that lit up a room and made all who knew him, comfortable from the word go. He had the call to serve and he did, more than most with 4 tours in Iraq. When retirement came, his service did not stop. Chris was human, he suffered the same flaws we all do, the same burden that all who have seen war carry, but he carried on and died while serving others.
Phil and Lisa Taylor never served in the military, yet they are welcomed by thousands of service members from around the world because they fulfill Lincoln’s promise “To Care For.” They help us all keep a sacred promise that we have made to all who serve in the Armed Forces, that if you shall perish, if you shall fall, we will never forget. Each portrait is reminder of the sacrifice that is made for all of us by those who go into harm’s way. The portrait will not bring Chris Kyle back, but it was a perfect way to honor him and his family and reminds us all that service to others is all of our responsibly whether you ware a uniform or not.