STEPHENVILLE, Texas — For those who served with Eddie Ray Routh in the Iraqi desert, the man on trial for gunning down the famed "American Sniper" Chris Kyle and a friend is not the Marine they had come to know.
"The Routh I knew looked up to people who did that kind of job," said former Cpl. Ryker Pawloski. "He respected war fighters like you wouldn't believe."
"It just doesn't fathom," agreed Corey Smalley, who shared a metal trailer with Routh at Camp Fallujah. "He wasn't the picture-perfect Marine, even though that's what he wanted to be. And the people he looked up to the most were people like Chris Kyle. He always wanted to be those people — be the people that Marines from now on will always be talking about."
Routh achieved that — but not the way he'd hoped.
The 27-year-old stands charged with capital murder in the Feb. 2, 2013, slayings of the former Navy SEAL and his friend, Chad Littlefield. Kyle, who by his own count made more than 300 kills, volunteered with veterans facing mental health problems. Kyle and Littlefield took Routh to a shooting range after his mother asked Kyle to help her son cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and other personal demons.
Routh's attorney, Tim Moore, read a text message during the trial in which Kyle described Routh as "straight-up nuts." Family members have testified that Routh came back from his military service a changed man. He was hospitalized multiple times for mental health issues and had trouble keeping a job.
"I noticed that he kind of lost his desire for life," his uncle, James Watson testified.
Moore said that when Routh killed Kyle and Littlefield "he was in the grip of a psychosis" so severe he didn't know it was wrong and thought "it was either him or them."
Erath County District Attorney Alan Nash described Routh as "a troubled young man," but said mental illnesses "don't deprive people from being good citizens, to know right from wrong."
After the killings, Routh's parents described a young man haunted by what he'd seen in Iraq and earthquake-ravaged Haiti, and who sought relief at the bottom of a bottle. Many combat veterans say Routh exaggerated his experiences, and scoff at the notion that he saw anything that would cause PTSD.
Men who served with "Routhy" in Combat Logistics Battalion 8 at Camp Fallujah in 2007-2008 concede he had a drinking problem, even before Iraq. And they don't recall their unit suffering anything overly traumatic.
But they say something must have happened to turn Routh from a gung-ho Marine into an alleged double killer.
Shortly after the unit reached Fallujah, Routh was ordered to Balad Air Base, where he helped guard Iraqi prisoners. Although Routh had no love for the captured fighters, Smalley said he was disturbed at how they were treated.
He told Smalley some guards would use the leashed prisoners' heads to push open the metal cell doors. "And he just didn't feel like that was called for," Smalley told the AP.
Among Routh's most vocal doubters is the Warfighter Foundation, a nonprofit group whose mission is "to empower combat veterans and their families through physical, mental, and emotional rehabilitation."
Anecdotes and photos posted online by the group portray Routh as short-tempered and violent. Pawloski spoke with the group — on whose site Kyle's brother is an administrator — and supplied pictures, but said the information was taken out of context.
Pawloski said Routh did once body-slam him to a metal floor, but also apologized afterward and "followed me around a little, to make sure I was OK."
The Warfighters said Routh brutally beat Cpl. David Hawley over a mock "WANTED" poster suggesting Routh was gay. Hawley told the AP that while Routh overreacted, it was nothing more than normal horse play. "I mean, it wasn't no harm, no foul," he said. They shook hands afterward.
On the witness stand, Watson said his nephew was "at times" easily offended and then could get mad.
Former Erath County sheriff's deputy Gene Cole testified that while Routh was in jail, he heard Routh say, "I shot them because they wouldn't talk to me." Cole said that Routh also noted he'd been riding in the back seat.
Routh's former comrades say they are speaking out to defend the Marine he once was. There's no need, Pawloski said, "to demonize Routh even more so than he already did for himself."
One familiar part of Routh that has emerged, Smalley said, was that he confessed — and asked if he could apologize to the men's families.
"I'd love to have an hour to just sit down with him and talk to him," said Smalley. "I would put money on it, that he wasn't in his right mind. That there was something going on that, he made an unconscious decision to make that mistake."
All three men said they lost touch with Routh after Iraq, and had no idea of the turmoil he was in.
"None of us who deployed with him know what's wrong," Pawloski said. "We want to know what's wrong, and we want him to get help. Because all of us kind of have the collective feeling of, you know, we let our brother down."
Stengle reported from Stephenville; Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.