Freedom Ride

FEATURE: What I Saw at the Chris Kyle Memorial Rodeo

Chris Kyle
Chris Kyle / AP
February 12, 2014

Hamilton is a small town many Texans know by heart. It’s an hour west of Waco, two south of Dallas, two east of Abilene, and two and a half north of San Antonio. You can only enter the town center from four points, each bearing six-foot tall signs, shaped like tombstones, that read: "Welcome to Hamilton Pop. 3,095 What a Hometown Should Be."

I went there to attend the First Annual Chris Kyle Memorial Roping at the Circle T Ranch.

Even in death Kyle continues to save lives.

He spent years in the most dangerous parts of Iraq, ensuring that his comrades returned home to their loved ones. And if they returned home to their loved ones broken—missing limbs, burned beyond recognition, wracked with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—he supplied them with workout equipment, mental escape, and a confidante’s ear.

The deadliest Navy SEAL in history, the sniper with 160 confirmed kills, the man Iraqi insurgents dubbed the Devil of Ramadi, was known to weep and hug as he ferried broken souls to therapeutic hunts. Last weekend, one year after a disturbed Marine murdered him during a rehabilitative session, hundreds gathered to continue Kyle’s work.

"In my heart if I’m not a SEAL, I’m a cowboy," Kyle wrote in his best-selling memoir, American Sniper. So his family organized a rodeo to raise money for Base Camp 40, a charity that provides struggling veterans a day in the Colorado wilderness and plenty of 5 point bucks to hunt.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars post was nearly empty when I arrived in town. A Navy veteran goaded a Vietnam Army draftee to play some pool before spotting the odd face in the room: mine. He had only heard of the rodeo recently, but wasn’t surprised that the Kyle family had selected Texas for the fundraiser.

"Texans know the Three Fs: farming, fighting, and [sexual congress]. You don’t need anything else to be a SEAL," he said.

He retired to the pool table, leaving me and Bartender Bob alone at the bar. Bob is an amiable man with a barrel chest and baritone voice, his head and chin blanketed in thick white hair. His father served 27 years in the Navy, and he followed in his footsteps during Vietnam. His war buddy’s son was among the dead when an RPG downed a Chinook helicopter carrying 38 soldiers, including 25 special forces operators, just after SEAL Team 6 killed Osama Bin Laden. Kyle’s memorial struck a nerve.

"When my friend’s son died, six SEALs showed up at his home to take care of the family. He had been painting it and, you know he was broken up, so they painted his house," Bob said. "Those guys look out for each other."

One veteran SEAL was willing to get gored by a bull to raise money in Chris Kyle’s memory: The rodeo was to be capped off by an event known simply as "SEAL vs. Bull."

Finding the SEAL proved a tougher task than I expected. I zeroed in on the man with forearms the size of civil war cannons only to find that he was lead singer of the band. The clean-shaven man in the leather jacket, crisp shirt, and crew cut turned out to be a local farm boy. A sympathetic cowboy finally pointed me to the only man in the crowd lacking glamour muscles. Blue ink ran down both his arms, along with crudely depicted sea turtles.

"It’s the ocean. We spend a lot of time in the water, so I figured it was fitting," Ryan "Birdman" Parrott said.

Parrott, a member of SEAL Team 7, crossed paths with Kyle for a few weeks in Iraq in 2005, but didn’t get to know the legendary sniper until he left the Navy and moved to Texas in 2010. Though they had known each other briefly, Kyle treated him like a long lost brother. Parrott, like many servicemen, joined the Navy right out of high school. He had never known civilian life as an adult.

"I’m 30 going on 50 with all the stuff I’ve seen, but I’m also 30 going on 18 because I missed that learning curve," he said.

Kyle, having struggled with his own transition out of service in 2008, provided Parrott a crucial link to civilian life.

"Former SEALs confide in two people: our women and our teammates," he said.

Parrott stood in front of a trailer attached to a Tarleton State University pick-up. The Detroit native stared the white and black spotted bull in the eye, keeping his calm as swaggering, good ole boys joshed him about bull riding.

"He looks like he wants to eat me," Parrott said.

"He doesn’t want to eat you. He wants to kiss you," said a skinny, scraggly-bearded Texan in an ostentatious black cowboy hat.

It was Jeff Kyle, the Marine Sergeant who inspired Chris Kyle to join the service. The story: Chris set out to follow his brother, but the Marine on duty was out to lunch. A Navy recruiter intercepted him as he made his way to the parking lot. He told him about the SEALs.

"He and the SEALs were meant to be," Jeff said. "Chris was always a protector, always looking out for the little guy. He was made to protect us and our country."

Chris was a fervent Christian. One of his favorite Bible verses, Psalm 91: 1-2, was printed on his funeral program: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, 
my God, in whom I trust!’"

On the battlefield, Kyle was the trusted protector. He and his team adopted the skull logo popularized by The Punisher comics. The sight of the skull on base reassured soldiers that they had the best shot in the armed forces, scanning street corners and halting ambushes with a single trigger squeeze.

A retired special warfare combatant-craft crewman (SWCC) told me he’d driven four-and-a-half hours to attend the rodeo. He spent his 24-year Navy career pushing boats out of airplanes, then repelling down to drive SEALs to and from missions. He’d never encountered a SEAL whose legend exceeded that of Kyle.

"There were rumors going around about a sniper who couldn’t miss, but we didn’t talk about it outside of Iraq for operational security," he said. "It inspired a lot of people."

Army Sgt. Carlos Montoya drove an hour from Ft. Hood, where he’s stationed with the 1st Calvary division, to honor the man who had his back during one of his two tours in Iraq.

"I crossed paths with him during my second tour. I saw that Punisher logo and assumed it belonged to [explosive ordnance disposal soldiers]. When I found out it was Chris Kyle and the SEALs, I just said, ‘Whoa,’" he said.

A ROTC color guard drove up from Tarleton State University to present the flag during the national anthem. They have participated in various fundraisers over the past few years, but felt increased pressure to perform in front of the family members of the small agriculture school’s most famous drop-out.

"We’re honored just to be chosen. We know a lot of people wanted this assignment. He’s an alum, so that makes it that much more special for us," said sophomore Lorenzo Puente.

Attendees browsed the various donated items up for auction at the rodeo: paintings of Kyle in cowboy get-up, an autographed George Strait guitar, custom Chris Kyle saddles. Circle T Arena lifted its ban on weapons and guns, allowing organizers to sell the custom AR-15, the Lonetree Patriot Knife, and the Weatherby Mark V Ultra-Lite 7 MM rifle inscribed with Kyle’s guiding ethos: "It is our duty to serve those who serve us."

All of the proceeds from the auction, as well as the rodeo’s $10 cover charge went to Base Camp 40. One hundred VIP attendees paid a larger sum to enjoy a dinner of rib-eye, potatoes, asparagus, and chocolate cake. Those tickets sold out quickly. People came from all over Texas, even Alberta, Canada, to honor Kyle.

"It’s great to see people supporting our veterans whether it’s in Chris’ name or not," Jeff Kyle said. "I used to tease him that being a Marine made me the man of the family. There’s a rivalry [between the branches] but at the end of the day, they’re our brothers and sisters and we have to support them."

Parrott, the man of the hour, didn’t have much of an appetite. He mingled with the crowd, entertaining the advice of dozens of cowboys eager to share tips about surviving a bull ride. He’d never ridden one before, and the only training he’d received was a lesson delivered by professional bull rider Luke Snyder that morning.

"I called [Kyle’s father] Wayne when I found out about the roping and asked him for the meanest bull he could find. I figured the rodeo could use some cheer. I didn’t know what I was asking for," he said.

Children chased one another around the center of the arena as Parrott awaited his ride. I joined them. The ground had some give to it, maybe a centimeter of loose dirt to cushion a rider’s fall. The center stage was covered in hoof-prints from a roping event earlier in the day. The ground there was hard as a rock.

There was a lot riding on Parrott’s performance. Every second he stayed on the bull meant another $1,000 for Base Camp 40. He, like Kyle, dedicated his civilian life to supporting returning vets. He founded Sons of the Flag, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting burn survivors, shortly after coming home.

"I got blown up in 2005 and got first degree burns. I thought I had it bad, but then I met a guy who got burned badly from an IED," he said. "I don’t want to look at an American soldier who’s mangled and know that we’re not looking for a cure."

"You can’t put a price on freedom and you can’t put a price on what Base Camp 40 is going to do with the money," she said.

The charity raised another $4,000 after Parrott survived four seconds on the 2,000-pound bull. He downed a shot of Jack Daniels to calm himself, assented to an interview with a sigh.

"America has an out of sight, out of mind approach to veterans. But we never lose sight of what’s important. We keep our eye on the prize, which is the safety of the American people and getting our people home. We need people to know we’re making an impact," Parrott said.

Several rodeo buffs praised his form, told him he was a natural. Four seconds on his first ride ever? Why, he was halfway to championship riding level. "That was a good-sized bull, too," one rodeo buff told me.

Parrot lifted up his pant leg, examined his bruised calf.

"I’m never doing it again. That one was for Chris."