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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — He was a football star and class president, the baby brother of five boys raised in a blue-collar home in middle America, a good neighbor ready to lend a helping hand.

Robert Bales befriended a mentally disabled boy as a youth, stepped forward to serve his country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and sought candy and soccer balls as gifts for Iraqi children during his first deployment, witnesses testified Wednesday.

“Bobby was very happy,” Bill Bales, the oldest sibling of the man who has admitted to committing the worst war crime by a U.S. soldier during the long war in Afghanistan, said of his brother’s childhood. “He had a way with people, too.”

Bales’ defense team for the first time began to make its case for leniency during his sentencing hearing Wednesday, depicting the Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) staff sergeant in sharp contrast to the earlier portrayals of Bales as a coldblooded assassin who stalked women, children and the elderly.

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In brutal detail, Afghan villagers and prosecutors this week described how Bales indiscriminately murdered 16 innocent people, many of them pleading for their lives, during a predawn rampage last year on two villages outside of a remote military outpost in Kandahar province.

Bales, 39, a married father of two who lived with his wife and two children in Lake Tapps, Pierce County, pleaded guilty in June to the slayings and other charges under a deal to spare him a death sentence.

A panel of six high-ranking soldiers is charged with deciding whether Bales should spend the rest of his life in prison or be eligible for parole after 20 years. To win a lighter sentence, Bales’ team must convince at least two of the six jurors that he deserves leniency.

On Wednesday, Army prosecutors rested their case after calling five more witnesses, including the final two of nine Afghan villagers who testified after traveling more than 7,000 miles to confront Bales in person for the first time.

Defense attorneys then launched into their case, calling Bill Bales and a former next-door neighbor, Bob Durham, who broke down when describing how a teenage Bales helped him care for his profoundly disabled son for years.

“As a single parent, I needed someone to help me,” Durham said. “And Bobby was extremely good at that.”

Examining state of mind

After Wednesday’s proceedings, Bales’ defense lawyer, John Henry Browne, told reporters he expects to delve into Bales’ mental-health issues during Thursday’s proceedings.

“I don’t think anyone with a rational mind could say Bob Bales didn’t snap,” Browne said. “We’re not trying to ‘paint’ that for the jury. That’s just what happened.”

Browne said he plans to call Bales’ doctor and other medical experts, as well as character witnesses, to help show that circumstances exist to warrant leniency. The Seattle defense lawyer has said that post-traumatic stress, a traumatic brain injury and steroid, drug and alcohol use all factored into Bales’ state of mind.

Bales will also apologize for his crimes — but he won’t be questioned by prosecutors. Browne said his client plans to use a military-court rule that allows the accused to give unsworn testimony without having to face cross-examination.

Earlier Wednesday, cousins Khamal Adin and Haji Wasir, two middle-aged men wearing traditional Afghan dress, each recounted the human carnage they found after rushing to the village of Najiban the morning after Bales gunned down 11 members of their family.

Wasir’s mother, wife and six of his seven children — including his 1½ -year-old daughter — all had been shot at close range, Adin said.

“The dead bodies were piled and were actually on fire,” he said through an interpreter. “They were set on fire.”

Wasir was destroyed by what he found there.

“When someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastating it is to your life,” Wasir said through an interpreter. “But I lost an entire family.”

After prosecutors finished questioning him, Wasir tried to address the court, telling the judge: “There are things I have in my heart that I want to speak about, if I get a chance.”

The judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, apologized, explaining to Wasir he wasn’t allowed to give unsolicited testimony.

Col. Todd Wood, a Stryker Brigade commander stationed in Afghanistan at the time of the massacre, also explained how Bales’ unprovoked attacks ignited angry protests outside the outpost at Camp Belambay, jeopardizing soldier safety there.

Out of respect to victims’ families, military commanders imposed a two-week “operational pause,” Wood said, during which a Taliban cell infested the region, stockpiled weapons and laid explosive booby-traps that later had to be cleared.

“It set us back probably three weeks,” he said.

The Army has since made $980,000 in “condolence payments” to relatives of Bales’ victims, Wood said, but U.S. relations with Afghan locals are “very strained.”

“It will probably be generations before we’ll be able to gain some of that trust back,” he said.

A change after 9/11?

When Bales’ 55-year-old brother, Bill, took the stand, he described how the Bales boys grew up the sons of a hardworking father with drinking problems in Norwood, Ohio.

His brother was a well-liked student-athlete who was fond of a good time, Bill Bales said.

Robert Bales graduated from high school and went to Ohio State University before moving to live near the beach in Florida as a young adult, he added.

“We used to call him Good Time Bobby,” Bill Bales said.

But after the 9/11 attacks, Robert Bales quickly matured — getting married to his wife, Kari, and enlisting in the Army, Bill Bales said.

“I know when the twin towers came down, that had an effect on Bobby,” he said.

His younger brother has since been deployed four times and become a model father to his two children, ages 6 and 3, he said.

Prosecutors argued to Nance that Bales had not enlisted out of patriotism, but because he was under investigation for fraud for “suspicious deposits” into his bank account.

The judge later allowed them to ask Bill Bales on cross-examination whether he knew about his younger brother’s fraud case. The elder brother said he didn’t.

After the hearing, Browne told reporters Bales didn’t run away to join the Army to avoid financial troubles. He added that his client’s caring nature, depicted by witness testimony and childhood pictures shown in court Wednesday, is genuine.

“It’s extraordinary, I think,” Browne said of Bales’ care for his mentally disabled neighbor. “It’s nothing we made up. You saw the photographs.”

Lewis Kamb: 206-652-6611 or Twitter: @lewiskamb

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