JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — While choking back tears, the man responsible for the worst war crimes by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan took the witness stand Thursday and apologized for the unforgivable.
“What I did was an act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear, bullshit and bravado,” Staff Sgt. Robert Bales told a packed military courtroom at his own sentencing hearing Thursday.
“I am sorry, truly, truly sorry, for what I did to those people,” said Bales, a 40-year-old father of two. “I murdered their families. If I could bring their family members back, I would in a heartbeat.”
Bales’ apology went unheard by the Afghan villagers who had testified in excruciating detail about how the Army soldier methodically slaughtered 16 of their relatives.
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Given the option to witness Bales’ statement of contrition, all nine Afghan boys and men flown in for the sentencing hearing declined to attend Thursday’s proceedings, Army officials said.
Instead, Bales spoke to a room crowded with his friends, family members, fellow soldiers and reporters, explaining how he grew increasingly fearful and angry over multiple deployments into war zones but hid his feelings for fear of being perceived as weak.
It was his first public apology for the killings.
Bales opted to give his statements during unsworn testimony, so as to avoid cross-examination. He didn’t speak about what exactly he did during the massacres, or why he carried them out.
Earlier this week, Afghan villagers and Army prosecutors described how Bales fired upon children, women and the elderly during a predawn rampage last year on two villages outside of his remote military outpost in Kandahar province.
The Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier, 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 his life.
Bales’ defense team and Army prosecutors are expected to make closing arguments Friday, then a panel of six high-ranking soldiers will deliberate whether Bales should spend the rest of his life in prison or be eligible for parole after 20 years.
No medical experts called
Bales’ testimony came far earlier than expected. Seattle lawyer John Henry Browne had said the defense planned to call as many as 10 expert witnesses to testify about the effects of multiple deployments, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental-health issues.
The defense team has suggested for months that Bales suffered from PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and that his alcohol and drug abuse factored into his state of mind before the massacres.
But Bales’ civilian and Army defense lawyers didn’t call a single medical expert Thursday, nor did they present any other evidence that Bales has been formally diagnosed with PTSD or head injuries.
Browne said later he has “a ton of documentation” from Bales’ Army medical file and other sources proving his client’s PTSD, but the defense chose not to introduce it.
“We didn’t want to open that door,” Browne said, “because then, you get into a battle of the experts. I don’t think juries like that.”
Three of the sitting jurors are combat veterans, Browne added. Only two jurors would need to support possible parole for Bales to get the more lenient sentence.
“I think he told his story the way he wanted to,” Browne said of Bales. “Whether he changed anyone’s mind, I don’t know.”
Throughout Wednesday and Thursday, the defense indirectly tried to build the case that Bales’ four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan had changed what had been a loving brother, friend and father into a multiple murderer.
On Wednesday, a brother and neighbor told the jury Bales had been a popular student-athlete growing up who cared for a mentally disabled boy for years. On Thursday, the defense called former pro-football player Marc Edwards, a Norwood, Ohio, high-school football teammate of Bales, to continue that narrative.
Wearing a diamond-studded Super Bowl ring he won with the New England Patriots in 2002, the ex-fullback said Bales “took me under his wing” after the younger Edwards beat Bales out for his starting linebacker position in high school. They soon became best friends, Edwards added.
“I look up to him,” Edwards said. “I still do.”
Next, Maj. Brent Clemmer, who served with Bales on two deployments to Iraq, described Bales as a reliable, competent soldier who became a go-to squadron leader during impromptu, often bloody missions.
“He stood out,” Clemmer said. “He just had a real positive attitude.”
When he learned Bales was responsible for the Afghan massacres, Clemmer said he was stunned.
“I walked myself into my office, poured myself a glass of scotch, and cried,” he said.
Sgt. Timothy Farris cried as he recounted a string of horrific experiences he shared with Bales during two deployments to Iraq.
During one incident, Farris said, he and Bales were sent to sweep a key road of enemy explosive devices. Afterward, an Army truck struck a mine and exploded, killing everyone. Farris and Bales helped put pieces of the dead into body bags, he said.
“All we could think about (was) did we do a good enough job clearing the route?” Farris said.
Prosecutors countered by asking if Farris, who described Bales as a model soldier, knew that Bales had twice been involved in drunken-driving incidents while in the Army and later lied about his criminal history on re-enlistment papers. Farris said he wasn’t aware of the incidents, but even if true, they wouldn’t change his opinion of Bales.
“I didn’t want to be weak”
When Bales took the stand, he told defense lawyer Emma Scanlan he began suffering headaches after his second deployment to Iraq in 2007. He said he’d become angry for the slightest reason, such as having to wash dishes.
Wearing his blue dress uniform, Bales spoke softly, telling Scanlan he revealed his feelings to no one.
“I didn’t want to be weak,” he said.
Instead, Bales said he turned to alcohol and sleeping pills.
Bales said when the feelings intensified after he returned home in 2010 after his third deployment, he sought counseling for a month and a half at a local clinic. But he soon stopped attending, he said.
“I didn’t believe it was helping me.”
When he received orders for his fourth deployment, this time to Afghanistan, in late 2011, “I didn’t want to go,” Bales said.
He tried to transfer to a recruiter’s job, he said, but missed a deadline.
While deployed, Bales said his anger and fear escalated at the remote Camp Belambay, as did his drinking and use of drugs. He described flying into rages and growing increasingly paranoid.
“I saw threats everywhere,” he said. “I saw IEDs all the time … Looking back on it now, it’s different. It was just me.”
The night before the massacres, Bales testified, he perceived seeing light signals being flashed between the two Afghan villages.
When told by his attorney that he had a chance to say what he wanted to his victims, Bales looked down, shook his head, and paused before apologizing. To his family, friends and wife, he added: “I’m sorry I let you down.”
But Bales choked up the most while addressing his fellow soldiers.
“I love the Army,” Bales said, his voice cracking. “I stood next to some really good guys, some real heroes. I call them my ‘Patriot Brothers.’ I can’t say that I’m sorry to those guys enough.”
Lewis Kamb: 206-652-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @lewiskamb