Arkansas City, Kansas – Tyler Juden carried a b.b. gun like a little cowboy before he was old enough to go to school. He latched onto firearms at the age of five. His precision and reflexes eventually won him four top marksmanship awards in his home state of Kansas -- and a career as an army sniper.
Twenty-three year old Sergeant Tyler Juden died in Afghanistan last month.
As a little boy, Juden astounded even adults. What he could do with a gun was memorable. "I love to watch people do things that they're very good at," says his mother, Reatha. "You know, it's just beautiful. And, his deal was shootin'. It was just pretty. So, yeah. He was good." His mother was sure nobody was supposed to be able to do what he could with a dinky, low power b.b. gun. Sitting in her home near Arkansas City, Kansas, she remembers Tyler's father once asking the boy what he was doing out in the barn. Turns out, he was shooting bees. "Those wood bees, you know, they'd burrow into the wood," Reatha explains. "And they'd fly, and just as they'd get ready to go into the wood, they'd slow down a little bit, and Tyler would shoot em. And he shot two of em while Bob was settin' there. Bob just looked at him and said, 'Knock yourself out.' And this was a little old Daisy b.b. gun."
Out in the country, it's no big thing if you're good at hunting. But being good at hunting at age five -- as Tyler was -- is unusual anywhere. Tyler carried the b.b. gun like it was an extension of himself. It went with him to understanding babysitters' homes. Adults were sometimes shocked to see Tyler and his sister out shooting a pistol after school in fields behind the house. Tyler was in third grade, Jacey in kindergarten. "Oh yeah," Jacey recalls, laughing. "We'd do that all the time, stuff like that. You know, I mean, he'd come in, Jaycey, let's go shoot, let's go shoot!'" The younger sister remembers thinking, "Oh all right. You're gonna outshoot me, but I guess I'm going, anyway." By high school Tyler was outshooting everybody, winning Kansas target championships, time after time.
At the family's home, far out in the country, Bob and Reatha Juden put strangers at ease. None of their visitors are looking forward to talking about the couple's only son, days-dead. Tyler's picture sits, framed, on a table. "Lemme turn the lights on. That was him in July, when he was home right before he deployed," says his father.
Bob Juden figures his son was in training to become a sniper from the time he got his first gun. Tyler's mother won't disagree. Not many mothers have a son who can methodically kill an enemy he can actually see in a rifle scope. "It's a strange skill . . . uncommon maybe should be there word . . . My thoughts were, basically, 'He's in the hands of the Lord.' And you don't have much control over that," she says, beginning to sob. "But I was proud of the fact that he could do it. Actually, the way he always explained it to me -- at least, for my benefit, maybe, and I think probably it was the truth -- sometimes he felt like maybe that was a better deal for him than some of the other situations that people were in. He said, 'Mom, it's hard, some of the things we do are hard. But they put us out and we operate together, my spotter and I.' And he said, 'We can get around and do what we need to do,' and he said, 'It's maybe not as dangerous as people think.' He said its maybe less dangerous than some other things people have to do."
The Judens, both school teachers, hoped their son would turn to teaching when he left the army. The sergeant's hometown friends didn't ever think he would follow in his parents' footsteps. They say he'd talked about becoming a state trooper. At Cowley County Community College, where Tyler once took classes, Jancye Sturd stood right outside the gym where Tyler's funeral service would be held in just a few days. The friend was not surprised to learn that Tyler had became a paratrooper-sniper. He was calculating, trim, organized. Even had a neat pickup truck. "Typical boy truck, to me, is very, like, messy . . . I just always remember him being very well put together," Sturd says. "In my mind that's -- you know -- a characteristic a sniper has to have."
Jancye's sister dated Tyler through high school. The three spent a lot of time together. She noticed his careful attention to little things. It seemed right for a boy who became a man who would make his career hunting an enemy in cold calculation. "Little details," she says. "He always noticed little details. He would notice when my sister was wearing a different perfume or something, you know? Little stuff like that. . . . Having to be that observant and that well put together, it made sense to me that he would be good at something like that."
After so much war, Tyler lost some of his zest for hunting. Back in the Judens' living room, Reatha says her son eventually came to the conclusion that there wasn't much sport in killing. "The hunting was okay, but he... he got a little more respectful of wildlife, I think. And it was like, I like to shoot, but I just don't know if I like to kill stuff so much anymore."
The pasture where young Tyler practiced shooting as a boy still has special meaning to his dad. Bob Juden walks under the grove of trees with an old gun, hands shaking as he loads a shell, and says, "Last time he was at home, I came home and he was here by himself, and he was out there under those trees." The sound of a gunshot rings out.
Tyler Juden wasn't acting as a sniper when he was killed. Army reports say he was helping to protect a truck convoy, delivering sustenance from the World Food Organization, when he was hit by rocket grenades and gunfire.
Twenty-three years old, and two months into his second tour.