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Murder of former Navy SEAL turns spotlight on veteran hunting and shooting clubs

Chris Kyle, a sniper in Iraq, was so feared that he was dubbed "The Devil of Ramadi" and had an $80,000 bounty on his head. Tragically, it wasn't enemy fire that killed him, but a fellow soldier asking for help with PTSD. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

Firing bullets at a gun range — as a Marine reservist was doing Saturday when he allegedly killed ex-Navy SEAL and "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle — can ignite combat flashbacks, a leading expert on post-traumatic stress disorder said Monday, adding, however, that hunting and target practice can be therapeutic for veterans if their shooting buddies intimately know war.

“The question being asked is: Wouldn’t the shooting of a weapon out in the open trigger feelings, nightmares, flashbacks? The answer is, yes, it can,” said Dr. Harry Croft, a San Antonio-based psychiatrist who has talked with more than 7,000 veterans diagnosed with PTSD. “But the hope would be that those would be triggered in a situation that’s safe, where other people are there who understand PTSD and could help the person cope with the thoughts that may come back to them.

“In situations like a shooting range, the sounds may set off a hyper-vigilant response, maybe flashbacks and nightmares at night. But it doesn’t make you violent, like you’re going to kill the person around you. And if the person around you is a Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who knows and can support you, then that experience can have a more positive effect,” Croft said.

Eddie Ray Routh, 25, a Marine Corps corporal from 2006 to 2010 who deployed to Iraq in 2007 and Haiti in 2010, was arraigned Sunday on two counts of capital murder in the deaths of Kyle, 38, and Chad Littlefield, 35, at a shooting range in North Texas. Both men were killed with a semi-automatic handgun.

According to Erath County Sheriff Tommy Bryant, Routh "may have been suffering from some type of mental illness from being in the military himself." Bryant added that Routh's mother possibly contacted Kyle to try to help her son. The sheriff also learned, he said, that the three men might have been at the range “for some type of therapy that Mr. Kyle assists people with.”

Organized veteran hunting excursions and shooting clubs — meant to be part bonding experience, part brief return to comfortable turf and tools — have proliferated across the country in recent years, particularly as American troops departed Iraq and as they continue to pull out of Afghanistan. Croft estimated that about 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have a form of PTSD, ranging from mild to severe.

“I talk all the time about the importance of good support systems for those suffering from PTSD, and articulate, bright, fellow military members like Kyle might have an ability to help a young troop with PTSD more than most (others) might,” said Croft, who co-authored “I Always Sit with My Back to the Wall: Managing Traumatic Stress and Combat PTSD.”

“That’s why it would be very rare if, all of a sudden, (the suspect) got triggered feelings and then would turn the gun and shoot this guy in the back. Something happened that we don’t know or understand, I believe,” said Croft, who has never worked with Routh. “This behavior is totally atypical for people with just PTSD. There can be rage, anger, aggression, agitation, even violence, yes. But it’s generally directed toward family members or one’s self, in terms of this suicide epidemic. Rarely is it outside of that circle.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has occasionally partnered with the Tampa, Fla.-based Black Dagger Military Hunt Club to hold shooting programs for veterans. In July, the club is sponsoring the trap shooting competition for the 2013 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa, providing ammunition and clays. Black Dagger, made up of ex-military members, also holds four to six shooting events per year. Every participant is briefed beforehand by “range safety officers" and supplied weapons. The veterans then work one-on-one with expert shooters, said founder Dave Winters, a 20-year Air Force member who retired as a senior master sergeant.

“We tell them: If at any time you feel uncomfortable about what’s going on out here, if the noise is too loud, put your weapon down, talk to your range safety buddy and just indicate that you need to walk away,” Winters said.

“We’ve had several who were real uneasy about approaching it at first, but once they saw that it was a comfortable thing, (and of course that) no one is shooting at them, that’s what I think helps them. It kind of normalizes them,” Winters said. (One Afghanistan veteran in the club), who feels like no one can relate to him, said that when he’s back out at the range, shooting and talking, it's just like when he was in his unit. It just makes them feel a lot better.”

In central Florida, the Sportsmen’s Foundation for Military Families escorts combat veterans — and their spouses, children, parents or siblings — onto leased land for weekend hunting trips.

“We never cater to just the veteran. Two veterans — or a group of veterans — who are out in the woods together, that does not improve coping skills, generally speaking. What improves their coping skills is their family,” said Barry Hull, a retired Navy commander and F/A-18 Hornet pilot who flew on the first night strike of Desert Storm. He has helped the Sportsmen's Foundation on the business side and attended several hunts.

The group is based on the concept that hunting trips “give the veteran and family a sense that they can once again be like they were, that those good days can be had again, particularly with those who have physical injuries and limitations,” Hull said.

“What improves a veteran’s coping skills is their family. And I know a lot of people want to say, 'Well, they're my military family.' They’re really not your family. Your family is really what I would call the classical definition of family — that's it for the long haul,” Hull said. “If you can develop those coping skills, communication picks up at home. We know that just simply being able to identify your demons lowers the effect (of PTSD). And that's what we do when we get the family out there on these adventures.

“The worst thing you can do is get a bunch of veterans out there in the woods, whooping and hollering and telling war stories, maybe drinking some beer, and not including the family. What does it do? It drives a bigger wedge between the veteran and the family. It's another distance maker,” Hull added. “What does that do? It adds more stress.”