He allegedly pulled the trigger, but why?
Army officials gave a name and face Friday to the soldier alleged to have killed 16 Afghans on Sunday. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a 38-year-old Ohio native with a wife and two children, was known around town as a family man, neighbors near his Lake Tapps, Wash., home have said. Their words paint a picture of a kind father who was reticent to talk about the three tours of duty, totaling 37 months of combat-zone experience, he served in Iraq before being deployed again to Afghanistan.
“When I heard him talk, he said … ‘Yeah, that’s my job. That’s what I do,’” next-door neighbor Kassie Holland told The Associated Press. “He never expressed a lot of emotion toward it."
War leaves no soldier untouched, and information about Bales that has surfaced since his name was revealed gives us fuller understanding of the man who was a certified sniper and member of the Second Battalion, Third Regiment, Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team—and is suspected in the deaths of 16 Afghan civilians, although he has not yet been charged.
According to people who knew Bales growing up in Ohio, the future soldier attended Norwood High School in a Cincinnati suburb, where he played on the football team and worked part time with autistic youth. Jack Bouldin, a retired physical-education teacher from Norwood High School, told WLWT News in Cincinnati that the accusations against Bales were “mind-boggling” and remembered his former student as “fairly happy-go-lucky.”
Another friend from Bales’s childhood days, a teammate from Norwood, told WLWT News that Bales was a captain on the football team. “This is some crazy stuff if it’s true,” Steve Berling said. “He was a great guy with a huge heart.”
The turning point for Bales appeared to be the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which inspired him to join the Army. Almost immediately after enlisting, Bales was assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he remained for most of his career. John Henry Browne, Bales’s lawyer, has said that the sergeant was injured twice during his tours in Iraq. Bales was “highly decorated,” Browne said, and allegedly sustained a concussion in Iraq when a crude explosive caused a vehicle he was in to roll.
Bales may have harbored hopes of getting out of the combat zone, perhaps by becoming a military recruiter, as Browne has said. The Army kept the soldier in a state of limbo, the lawyer said. “He wasn’t thrilled about going on another deployment,” Browne said. “He was told he wasn’t going back, and then he was told he was going.”
Karilyn Bales, a University of Washington graduate who works at a Seattle marketing firm and married Bales in 2005, wrote a blog that indicates that Bales may also have had ambitions of becoming a sniper instructor in Georgia.
According to records published by The Seattle Times, the two bought their house in Lake Tapps in 2005. Their home was listed on the market Monday, indicating plans to move may have been in the works, perhaps in conjunction with a new assignment. But a real-estate agent said Karilyn Bales left a message Tuesday asking to pull the listing.
Bales seems to have seen his share of action in Iraq and was involved in heavy fighting in 2007, when his unit was caught in a bitter battle in Iraq that ended only after 250 Iraqi insurgents were killed and more than 80 wounded. Bales’s unit did not suffer any casualties.
In an account of that battle published by the Army in 2009, Bales is quoted. “I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day,” Bales said, drawing particular pride from the way his unit left innocents unharmed. “We discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants, and then afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us. I think that’s the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy, someone who puts his family in harm’s way like that.”
Bales was promoted to staff sergeant in 2008.
Bales’s platoon leader from one of the Iraq deployments told reporters Friday that Bales “saved many a life” with acts of courage on the battlefield. “Bales is still, hands down, one of the best soldiers I ever worked with,” Army Capt. Chris Alexander said. “There has to be very severe [posttraumatic stress disorder] involved in this. I just don’t want him seen as some psychopath, because he is not.”
Some say that the uncertainty and ultimate disappointment of redeployment may have taken a heavy toll on Bales. Military officials said Thursday that Bales had been drinking—a violation of military rules—before the shooting, and this, compounded with combat fatigue and ongoing disputes with his wife, had torn away Bales’s reasoning skills. Bales’s lawyer has also told reporters that a day before the alleged nighttime attack a friend of the sergeant’s had his leg blown off by an explosive, but this account has not been confirmed.
“When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol, and domestic issues—he just snapped,” the official told The New York Times.
That account has been contested by Browne, who says his client has “a very strong marriage. A lot of love. A lot of respect."
On her blog, Karilyn Bales wrote about what it was like to endure her husband’s long absences, her disappointment when he did not receive a promotion about a year ago, and her wish list of locales for the family’s next assignment.
Germany was a top choice, the “best adventure opportunity!” Karilyn wrote on her blog. Italy would be the “2nd best adventure opp” and Hawaii—well, “nuff said.”
“I get hiccups all the time these days,” she says in one 2006 post, written while pregnant with her husband half a world away. “I always think that Bob is thinking about me.” According to the blog, Bales called her in the hospital from Kuwait when she gave birth to their daughter, Quincy, in December of that year. The family has reportedly moved from their two-story house in a leafy suburb to a military base out of concern for their safety.
According to records, Bales had previous scrapes with the law. According to court records, Bales was picked up by police in 2002 after allegedly assaulting his then-girlfriend in a Tacoma hotel, a charge to which Bales pleaded not guilty and underwent anger management counseling. That case was later dismissed.
Another case, this one a hit-and-run charge, was dismissed in 2008. Records of this case reportedly don’t reveal what exactly Bales hit, but do show that witness said they saw a “white male wearing military-style uniform, shaved head, and bleeding” who fled into a wooded area on foot. Bales paid fines of $1,000.
Even with these minor run-ins with the law, those who saw Bales at home with his wife and children were shocked when his identity came out.
“I just can’t believe Bob’s the guy who did this,” Paul Wohlberg, another neighbor from Bales’s home outside Tacoma, told reporters. “A good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time … I never thought something like this would happen to him.”