The curious case of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle’s DD-214

Chris KyleThere’s been a lot of coverage over the last week to findings by The Intercept that Chris Kyle, legendary Navy SEAL and famed author of the bestselling book American Sniper, substantially overstated the number of decorations he was awarded. In the book and elsewhere, Kyle claimed to have earned two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars for valor over four tours of duty in Iraq; but research by Intercept reporters Matthew Cole and Sheelagh McNeill found that official Navy records only showed him earning one Silver and three Bronze Stars.

Kyle’s own role in inflating his accomplishments has been well reported, both in The Intercept and elsewhere. But there’s another angle to this story that’s gotten less attention — which surprised me, because to me it’s the really important one.

It is this: if The Intercept’s reporting is accurate, Kyle’s case of “stolen valor” is unlike most. Because in this case, Kyle wasn’t acting alone. He had active, official assistance from the U.S. Navy itself.

To understand how we can see this, let’s talk a little about military bureaucracy. When a service member is discharged (released from military service), the military generates a form called a “DD-214” that summarizes the conditions of both their service and discharge. This document is what they can then use for the rest of their life to prove their eligibility for health care, education, burial in a national cemetery, and all the other benefits veterans are entitled to.

Because their DD-214 is the key a veteran uses to prove not just their veterancy but the details of their service, it is very important that it be accurate. And because it is very important that it be accurate, the world knows that the Defense Department puts great effort into making sure that it is accurate; which in turn means that facts on a DD-214 are accepted as being beyond dispute. The only way to get a more accurate report of a veteran’s career is to go to the Pentagon and query the DoD personnel database directly.

The Intercept obtained a copy of Kyle’s personnel records, including his DD-214. You can view them here. The DD-214 form itself is the last page. And if you look at block 13 on that form, you’ll see something very interesting: a report that Kyle earned two Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars — more medals than even he himself ever claimed.

After double-checking their records, the Navy confirmed to The Intercept that the actual number of medals Kyle earned during his service is the smaller figure of one Silver and three Bronze Stars.

So why did his DD-214 say otherwise?

The Navy claims this was a simple clerical error, but that seems unlikely to me. What are the odds that a random clerical error would line up so closely with Kyle’s own exaggerated claims?

A more plausible explanation, I would suggest, is this: someone knew Kyle had a habit of overstating his accomplishments; thought about the value he had to the SEALs and the Navy as a PR symbol; and then made sure he walked away with a DD-214 that could more than back up any claim he’d ever made.

The Navy, in other words, gave Chris Kyle a bit of a going-away present: an ironclad rebuttal to anyone who doubted he really had won those extra medals. All he’d have to do is produce his DD-214, and all doubts as to the truth of his claim would be instantly dispelled. (If anything, he’d look humble — by choosing to omit a Bronze Star he would appear to be entitled to claim.)

Which, if true, raises two questions: who in the Navy produced that DD-214, exactly? And did they do it on their own initiative, or under orders?