Suspect in deadly Afghanistan rampage had endured setbacks, earned respect but not key promotion.
As Afghan massacre suspect Staff Sgt. Robert Bales sat alone in a cell at the high-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on Saturday, a divergent portrait of the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier emerged.
Classmates and neighbors from suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, remembered him as a “happy-go-lucky” high-school football player who took care of a special-needs child and watched out for troublemakers in the neighborhood.
But court records and interviews show that the nearly 11-year veteran — with a string of commendations for good conduct after multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — had joined the Army after a Florida investment job went sour, saw a Seattle-area home condemned, struggled to make payments on another and failed to get a promotion or a transfer a year ago.
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Military officials say that after drinking on a southern Afghanistan base in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, Bales, 38, crept away on March 11 to two villages, shooting his victims and setting many on fire. Nine of the 16 killed were children, and 11 belonged to one family.
“This is some crazy stuff if it’s true,” Steve Berling, a high-school classmate, said of the revelations about the father of two known as “Bobby” in his hometown of Norwood, Ohio.
Bales hasn’t been charged yet in the slayings, which have endangered complicated relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and threatened to upend U.S. policy over the decade-old war.
His former platoon leader said Saturday that Bales was a model soldier who saved lives in firefights on his second of three Iraq missions.
“He’s one of the best guys I ever worked with,” said Army Capt. Chris Alexander, who led Bales on a 15-month deployment in Iraq.
“He is not some psychopath. He’s an outstanding soldier who has given a lot for this country.”
Bales, a student of Middle Eastern history and customs, often admonished younger GIs to treat noncombatants with courtesy and respect, Alexander said.
“Some guys had a pretty negative attitude, but Bales wasn’t like that at all. He said there was no need to be a jerk. Be polite, be professional and have a plan to kill everyone you meet if you need to.”
Alexander said the stress of combat was constant during their time together in Iraq, where friends and foes mingled and soldiers spent many hours in “mind-numbing boredom together, waiting to get blown up.”
Yet Bales, he said, “seemed far less stressed than I was. He just has that kind of personality.”
But pressing family troubles were hinted at by his wife, Karilyn Bales, on multiple blogs posted with names such as “The Bales Family Adventures” and “BabyBales.” A year ago, she wrote that Bales was hoping for a promotion or a transfer after nine years stationed at Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma.
“We are hoping to have as much control as possible” over the future, Karilyn Bales wrote last March 25. “Who knows where we will end up. I just hope that we are able to rent our house so that we can keep it. I think we are both still in shock.”
After Bales lost out on a promotion to E7 — sergeant first-class — the family hoped to go to Germany, Italy or Hawaii for an “adventure,” she said. They hoped to move by last summer; instead the Army redeployed his unit, the 3rd Stryker Brigade. It would be Bales’ fourth tour in a war zone.
Signs of the financial stress the Bales family faced were evident at a property Karilyn Bales bought before their marriage. They lived there briefly until they bought a house in late 2005.
The two-story duplex is in Auburn. The gray paint on the siding and blue paint on the trim are peeling. A bright-orange sign stuck on the door, dated November 2010, states that Auburn building officials had declared the home unfit for human occupancy.
Tim Burgess, who lives in the adjoining half of the duplex, said he got to know Bales when he moved into the house before the couple married. At the time, Bales limped because of a foot injury he suffered in his first deployment in Iraq, and he made routine visits to a rehabilitation center, Burgess said. But Bales spoke eagerly of returning to Iraq.
“He was looking forward to getting his health back and going back after his foot got better,” Burgess said. “He wanted to be a soldier. That’s what he lived for. He just wanted to go back. That was his goal, to get healthy and go back.”
Bales and his wife also were struggling to keep up payments on their home in Lake Tapps, about 35 miles south of Seattle; his wife asked to put the house on the market three days before the shootings, real-estate agent Philip Rodocker said.
Bales enlisted just two months after the Sept. 11 attacks. At 28, he was considerably older than the average Army recruit.
He was assigned to Lewis-McChord’s initial Stryker brigade, and in more than a decade of service with that unit, Bales became part of a battle-seasoned cadre of noncommissioned officers as more senior officers rotated through to other posts.
He was eventually promoted to staff sergeant, a job one Defense Department publication describes as the “backbone of the Army.”
While he was disappointed in 2011 at not winning the key promotion to sergeant first-class, which would have put him on a more promising career path, several former military officers said it often takes several reviews to gain that promotion. A retired officer said some career soldiers leave the service without ever gaining that rank.
Court records provide other signs of a troubled life. In Washington state, records show a 2002 arrest for an assault on a girlfriend. Bales pleaded not guilty and was required to undergo 20 hours of anger-management counseling, after which the case was dismissed.
A separate hit-and-run charge was dismissed in Sumner’s municipal court three years ago, according to records.
Growing up in Ohio, Bales always loved the military and war history, even as a teenager, said Berling, who played football with him in the early 1990s on a team that included Marc Edwards, a future NFL player and Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots.
“I remember him and the teacher just going back and forth on something like talking about the details of the Battle of Bunker Hill,” he said. “He knew history, all the wars.”
Bales joined the Army, Berling said, after studying business at Ohio State University — he attended three years but didn’t graduate — and handling investments before a downturn that pushed him out of the business. Florida records show Bales was a director at an inactive company called Spartina Investments in Doral, Fla.; a brother, Mark Bales, and a Mark Edwards were also listed as directors.
“I guess he didn’t like it when people lost money,” Berling said.
It is unclear what factors might have triggered the rampage in Afghanistan.
Reports from that country have indicated Army investigators found alcohol in Bales’ base quarters there, which is not permitted, and that Bales’ purported alcohol use will be examined as part of the inquiry into the killings.
At Lewis-McChord, soldiers with alcohol problems can be referred for treatment in several different programs. But a military source told The Seattle Times there is no record in Bales’ case file that he went through an alcohol-treatment program at the base or at Madigan Army Medical Center.
However, the military source also noted that some soldiers with drinking problems never go through a treatment program because they never come forward or get referrals from their commanders.
“We have soldiers who have a (drinking) problem and never get caught,” the military source said.
Bales’ lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said his information indicates his client did not have a drinking problem. He said he didn’t know if Bales had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the shootings, but said it could be an issue at trial if experts believe it’s relevant.
A statement issued Saturday by Bales’ legal team said the Bales family was “stunned in the face of this tragedy. But they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services.”
Bales’ wife and two children were taken to Lewis-McChord under federal protection amid threats by the Taliban of reprisal killings.
Compiled from The Washington Post and The Associated Press.
Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.