The emerging portraits of the U.S. soldier suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians has intensified debate about not only multiple war-zone deployments, but also about whether enough is being done to support the troops who serve them and about how long the war should continue.

Share story

For nearly a week, the military kept a lid of secrecy over the Army soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers.

At the base south of Tacoma, officials advised Army families in his unit to stay quiet and admonished the press to respect their privacy.

At the Pentagon, senior officials leaked out selected details of the soldier’s background even as they removed links to public-affairs articles that detailed some of his experiences in Iraq and his involvement in a training exercise in Afghanistan.

But as the week wore on, the Defense Department began to lose control of the flow of information about the suspect, and the portrait that emerged was of a soldier who earlier had performed with honor on the battlefield yet struggled on the homefront.

This narrative has intensified debate about how long U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan. It also turns some of the scrutiny back onto the Army, and on whether enough is being done to support combat troops as they face the physical and emotional tolls of lives split, often over the course of multiple tours, between combat zones and families.

John Henry Browne, a media-savvy Seattle attorney, announced Thursday that he had spoken with the suspect and would represent him. Browne then promptly held a news conference, describing his client as a dedicated but war-weary soldier who, after injuries and three tours of duty in Iraq, had not wanted to make a fourth trip to the front lines.

In the days that followed, after 38-year-old Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was identified as the suspect, two Army officers who had served with him decided to speak publicly, describing him not as a rogue individual but as a man whom — up until the alleged killings — they knew as an exemplary front-line soldier. Bales’ prior record of service included more than a decade with his Lewis-McChord brigade, and he was part of the cadre of seasoned soldiers that has helped sustain more than a decade of warfare overseas.

“Please keep SSG Robert Bales in your prayers. I know his alleged crime is terrible, but he is not terrible,” wrote Capt. Chris Alexander in a Facebook posting. “He is one of the best guys I’ve ever served with.”

“Robert Bales was a positive person who always had a smile on his face,” Maj. Brent Clemmer told the Public Radio Northwest News Network.

Clemmer provided the network a copy of a citation he had submitted recommending an award for Bales. It praised Bales for heroics in deploying his soldiers under intense enemy fire during the 2007 Battle of Zarqa and cited Bales’ efforts to assist in medical evacuations of critically wounded Iraqi civilians and insurgent fighters.

“These actions are in the finest traditions of military heroism,” Clemmer wrote in the citation, which he said did result in Bales receiving the award.

Bales allegedly left his small base in Kandahar province a week ago Sunday and, in the predawn hours, killed 16 people in two villages. Defense Department officials and military commanders have described the shooter’s actions as an aberration in stark contrast to the conduct of the vast majority of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“This deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people,” Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in a written statement. “Nor does it impugn or diminish the spirit of cooperation and partnership we have worked so hard to foster with the Afghan National Security Forces.”

Allen’s comments echo remarks made by other U.S. officials after photos became public of earlier war crimes involving five Lewis-McChord soldiers charged in the killings of three unarmed civilians in January, February and May of 2010. Four of the five were eventually convicted.

But so far, the case against Bales is unfolding in markedly different fashion than that earlier case, in which the Army was able to keep control of the information flow for a much longer period.

While Bales was able to contact a civilian attorney within days after his detention in Afghanistan, the five soldiers in the 2010 case were held for most of May that year for questioning at Kandahar Air Field. Only in June, as they were charged, did the Army release their names, and only in August — months after the killings occurred — did civilian attorneys begin speaking to the media.

“In these cases, we have seen again and again, the Defense Department had moved to isolate and vilify the people accused of crimes,” said Daniel Conway, a civilian military attorney who represented one of the five charged in the 2010 killings. “It’s important for the (defense) attorneys to get out front, and change the dynamic.”

As the prosecution of the 2010 war crimes unfolded, the soldiers’ family members made sympathetic statements. But officers in the soldiers’ brigade did not make public statements. Press reports brought out repugnant details of their conduct — that the soldiers had plotted to make murder look like legitimate combat deaths, took body parts as trophies and posed for photos next to corpses in crimes committed over a five-month period.

Bales is alleged to have killed all his victims in a single unauthorized foray outside his base.

On his Facebook page, Alexander, one of the officers who served with Bales, posted some of his “favorite Bales photos” showing the lighter side of earlier deployments. They depict Bales helping cook at a barbecue and grinning as he points to an unappetizing sample of a breakfast served at their base in Mosul, Iraq.

In Washington state, Bales and his wife, Karilyn, had financial setbacks and put their house up for sale just a few days before he became a suspect in the deaths of the 16 Afghans.

As the Army legal process unfolds in the months ahead, more information may become public about Bales’ time in Afghanistan.

Alexander, in his Facebook postings, poses a question about what might have happened. He notes some of the rigors of duty in Afghanistan, such as a threat of insider attacks from Afghan soldiers, and asks whether such pressures could have caused a “highly decorated, experienced NCO (noncommissioned officer) to finally snap under the strain.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com