Stephanie Lee, Pharm.D Candidate
University of Arizona College of Pharmacy
Kristyn Straw, Pharm.D., BCPP
Mental Health Pharmacist
Southern Arizona VA Health Care System
Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a biopic based on the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with the reputation of being the most lethal marksman in US military history. Originally from Texas, Kyle is a professional rodeo bull rider who enlists with the Navy after seeing a terrorist attack on the evening news. While still undergoing training to become a sniper, he meets a woman named Taya one night at a bar, who at first is taken aback and amused by Kyle’s pure sense of patriotism. The two eventually fall in love and get married, but shortly after, Kyle is called to Iraq for his first tour of duty.
Although he quickly earns the title “Legend” for his amazing skill as a sniper, it is clear that each and every kill takes a toll on him. Prior to going abroad, Kyle had only shot deer and snakes, and now he must kill men, women, and even children who endanger American forces. Despite being able to rationalize these kills by understanding that he must do it to save his comrades’ lives, Kyle’s new normal becomes one in which he must be suspicious of everyone. He develops the ability to quickly scan potential targets through the scope of his rifle and determine whether they are an enemy or just an ordinary civilian.
After returning from his first tour of duty, this survival tactic turns into a hypervigilance that is triggered by everyday noises like a neighbor’s lawnmower starting up or the sound of power tools at the automotive repair shop. He displays avoidant behaviors that are also typical of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When he accompanies his now-pregnant wife during an OB visit, Taya admits to the obstetrician that this has been the first time he has stepped out of the house since being back on American soil.
As he is sent back to Iraq subsequent tours, two main enemies emerge-“The Butcher”, the right-hand man to a high-ranking al-Qaeda official who tortures those who oppose him using a power drill, and “Mustafa”, an enemy sniper who is killing Kyle’s comrades one-by-one from the shadows. Kyle develops a sense of responsibility for everyone, even almost blaming himself for the comrades whom he was unable to save and takes it upon himself to avenge them.
Each time he returns home from war, his wife begs him to stay and cannot understand how he can leave his family so easily and put his life in danger while she is raising their children on her own. The distance that Kyle upkeeps is partly to protect Taya from the horrors of war, but it is a double-edged sword that puts strain on his family as well.
All the while, Kyle’s PTSD worsens. He is shown experiencing vivid flashbacks of Iraq even as he is just sitting in his living room. He also becomes increasingly aggressive and perceives normal occurrences as threats. After an incident at a birthday party where he almost beats a dog that is playing with his son, Kyle is urged to see a psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs hospital. During the appointment, he does not actually acknowledge that he is suffering from PTSD related to his combat duty. It is not until he starts volunteering his time by helping other veterans cope with their PTSD that Kyle finally begins his own recovery and starts readjusting to civilian life.
Although based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography, some of the events shown in American Sniper were definitely modified for Hollywood. Nonetheless, the movie is still one of the most accurate portrayals of PTSD in film and gives excellent insight into what leads up to developing the condition and its impact on the individual as well as those closest to them.