Robert Bales, the staff sergeant accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians as they slept two Sundays ago, is set to meet his lawyers for the first time tonight, even as friends and relatives in US struggled to square what they thought they knew about him with the horror of the accusations levelled against him.
“It is too early to determine what factors may have played into this incident and the defence team looks forward to reviewing the evidence, examining all of Sergeant Bales’ medical and personnel records, and interviewing witnesses,” the defence lawyers said before meeting with their client, who is in solitary confinement at a military maximum security unit at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
The defence team, led by John Henry Browne, has pushed back against US military claims that Sergeant Bales, 38, had been drinking before the killings and that he had been under pressure from marital and financial difficulties at home. They have been depicting him as exhausted by four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and potentially suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
Among those who have followed bulletins about Sergeant Bales in disbelief is Michelle Caddell, 48, who knew him when he was growing up in Ohio. “I wanted to see, maybe, a different face,” she told the New York Times, “because that’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”
Since the unveiling of his identity last Friday, a portrait has emerged of a man who was a popular school athlete in the Cincinnati suburbs, and whose adult life seems to have had its share of successes, military plaudits, setbacks and disappointments. Blemishes include a hit-and-run car accident attributed to drinking. There is also a misdemeanour charge on his record for assaulting a woman. He enlisted with weeks of 9/11.
Offering glimpses of his life in recent years has been a blog kept by his wife, Karilyn Bales, with whom he has two children. One of the last entries was made last March, when a hoped-for promotion for her husband which would have more pay and status did not come through. She wrote of her disappointment “after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends”.
Formal charges against Sergeant Bales are likely to be announced in the coming week or so and military court martial is expected to follow, probably at Fort Lewis south of Tacoma, Washington, where he was based. Both prosecutors and the defence would also seek to fly in witnesses for the trial from Afghanistan. Though a death penalty if he is convicted of those charges is a possibility, experts say no soldier has been executed in the US since 1961.
The Bales case may come to symbolise a US military overstretched for most of the last ten years and under criticism for doing too little to screen soldiers for fitness, physical and mental, when they are deployed multiple times. After three tours in Iraq – tours that left him with two injuries - Sergeant Bales had begun training as a recruiter at Fort Lewis in hopes of avoiding further war zone service. However, he was assigned to a unit working treacherous forward duties in Afghanistan last year. He was loath to go.
“This is equivalent to what My Lai did to reveal all the problems with the conduct of the Vietnam War,” Dr. Stephen Xenakis a psychiatrist and retired brigadier general said. “The Army will want to say that soldiers who commit crimes are rogues, that they are individual, isolated cases. But they are not.”
Mr Browne denied his client was under financial pressure beyond anything that is commonplace for American families today. But records show that Sergeant Bales and his wife left one property near Tacoma after failing to keep up with payments and holding a bank debt of $195,000 that is now derelict and moving to another two-storey house that has now been put on the market for less than what they paid for it.