It was 3 a.m. when a knock woke Capt. Dan Fields.
“Hey, Skipper,” a voice said. “You need to wake up.”
Fields, a Special Forces team leader, was used to these interruptions and not overly concerned as he pulled on sweatpants and a T-shirt just before dawn on March 11, 2012.
“One of the Afghan guards said there was an American that left the base,” the soldier told Fields.
Fields was already short manpower—five of his team were wounded in a roadside bomb attack about a week before—and he barely had enough people to defend the base. Fields woke his acting team sergeant and ordered a head count. The head count came back with one man missing—Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
What Fields didn’t know was Bales had already murdered four people in the nearby village of Alikozai and wounded six. After getting more ammunition, Bales left for Naja Bien, where he murdered another dozen people. In all, Bales killed 16 people, including four women and eight children.
This is the first time Fields has spoken about what happened at village-stability-platform, or VSP, Belambai on March 11, 2012. Fields, as the commander of the base, was responsible for Bales, and has carried the burden of what happened with him.
“A lot of my mindset after the massacre was centered on protecting my men, who were now at increased risk,” Fields said more than three years after the incident. “But also what I could have potentially done differently to have prevented it from happening. I’ve lost a lot of sleep over that. I still do at times.”
Fields has a runner’s physique with a groomed beard. Dressed smartly in slacks and a sweater, he looks like the other businessmen in the Texas hotel lobby where we meet. But as he recounts the incident, his speech becomes more measured as he seems to struggle to make sense of the fact that one of the soldiers under his command was a mass murderer and Fields never saw it coming.
A lot has been written about the massacre, America’s worst war crime since the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Many of the stories draw a connection between Bales’s killing spree and the impact of war on the men asked to fight. Bales suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, according to news reports. Some of those reports have tried to use the wounds to explain what happened.
That portrays Bales as a victim, Fields said. The massacre was never about the toll of war and Bales was never the victim. It was a crime against the Afghans that Fields was sent to help and Bales committed a soldier’s ultimate sin: He put his unit mates in danger.
“You can’t make this about Bales,” Fields said. “He is not the hero here. He is not the victim. He is just the one that fucked up.”
“Prepare to defend yourself”
Immediately after the head count, Fields reported Bales missing. Fields thought Bales must have been sleepwalking. He called Forward Operating Base Zangabad, which was about a mile away, and talked to the battle captain on duty. The base had a blimp with a camera attached to its belly. The blimps are flown high above larger bases in Afghanistan to detect missiles, planes, and enemy fighters at a range of about 340 miles. Fields asked the blimp operators to scan the area for Bales.
“The only thing I was thinking was, get this guy back on the base,” Field said. “I was concerned for his life. I was concerned about the welfare of my guys. I didn’t know what he is out there doing. My biggest concern was figuring out where the hell he was and getting him back.”
Less than a half-hour later, Fields got a report that FOB Zangabad’s medical clinic was treating Afghans shot by an American. Then the soldiers monitoring the blimp’s feed called to say they saw a man covered by a blanket wearing a helmet and night vision goggles coming from Naja Bien, the village to the south of the base.
Fields turned to his acting team sergeant and told him to grab the team’s shotguns and nonlethal rounds.
“Put together a group and go and intercept him,” Fields remembers telling him. “I don’t know the mental state of this individual, but be prepared to defend yourself.”
“Can’t shoot our way to victory”
This was Fields’s third combat deployment. He deployed to Iraq once and was in charge of a Special Forces team in another part of Afghanistan before deploying to VSP Belambai in early 2012. Fields didn’t come to Afghanistan to kick in doors. In this deployment his mission was to try to build something lasting for Afghanistan.
His team was part of the Special Forces’ Village Stability Operations, or VSO. The hope was to push Special Forces teams into villages throughout Afghanistan and train Afghan Local Police (ALP), recruits from the village used to police the area. By putting units in rural villages, the goal was to make it harder for Taliban and other insurgent groups to find a haven.
“We’re going to kill the enemy, but that is not how we’re going to win,” a Special Forces officer told me in 2008. “We can’t shoot our way to victory. This is about mobilizing the populace.”
This type of program was successful in Iraq’s Anbar province where tribal leaders forced insurgents out of the area. But then-President Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul protested the program because of concerns about the ALP becoming a militia.
One of the program’s first success stories was in Day Kundi province, where a Special Forces team moved into the village of Nili. The area is one of Afghanistan’s most peaceful regions and proved to be a good testing ground for the strategy. But when Fields’s team arrived, teams had pushed into more contested areas with mixed results.
“We knew it was a highly kinetic area,” Fields said, using the military jargon for combat. “The goal was to basically fight our way into a VSO mission.”
VSP Belambai was a mud compound about half the size of a football field. Besides Fields’s team of about a dozen Special Forces soldiers, the base had, with Bales in charge, 18 regular Army infantrymen from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, assigned to provide security. Bales and his men had been at VSP Belambai for a few months when Fields’s team arrived. A platoon of 30 Afghan soldiers rotated out every couple of weeks to help guard the base.
Bales was a stocky infantryman from Ohio who joined the Army after the attacks on September 11. He was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division and deployed to Iraq three times before his deployment to Afghanistan. He was injured at the Battle of Najaf in 2007 and suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2010. Bales is married with two children. He was struggling financially, according to media reports, and his home was put on the market three days before the shooting.
Bales had a short temper, according to an Army investigation of the incident. He had several run-ins at Fort Lewis, in Washington state, where he was based. He fought a security guard at a local casino in 2002 and got into a fight outside of a bar in 2008. In Afghanistan, he attacked an Afghan truck driver who was bringing supplies to the base. He also joked he wasn’t racist, “unless you count Afghanis or Iraqis,” according to the investigation.
Fields met Bales when he took over in February 2012. He said there was nothing exceptional about Bales. He was just another infantryman. On the other hand, Bales’s immediate teammates—the ones who worked with him most closely—didn’t seemed surprised Bales was the one who snapped. And that still pisses Fields off.
“If I was armed with that information, could I have done something to prevent it?” Fields said. “Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll never know though because no one warned me that there was a raging alcoholic with psychotic tendencies sleeping next door to my men.”
Thinking back on those 45 days with Bales, Fields can’t help but think what could have happened if Bales’s rage wasn’t focused on the Afghans.
“Anyone who has been in real combat, where bullets have landed around them, explosions have happened around them, where they’ve lost friends, seen their brothers in arms bleed, these people know that at the end of the day, the only thing that’s important is protecting the people around you,” Fields said. “What if he really disliked my team of Green Berets and murdered us in the middle of the night?”
Bales didn’t like Fields’s team, according to a GQ interview, and complained that Fields wasn’t aggressively pursuing the Taliban. But, of course, Fields was on a different kind of mission; he wanted to stabilize the area. When the team would leave, as they did four to five times a week, they’d mostly go on foot to meet the locals. The bang-bang part of war was minimal; even the attacks on the base or the patrols were more harassment than actual battles.
The team did find a 150-pound roadside bomb built to destroy the heavily armored trucks used by the team. When five of his men—including his team sergeant and intelligence sergeant—were injured by a roadside bomb, Fields didn’t have the manpower to aggressively patrol the area.
Fields and his team had been on the ground for only 45 days before the massacre. They’d hardly started their mission.
Covered in Blood
By the time the crew was ready to intercept Bales, he was nearly at the gate. They disarmed him without incident, according to reports, and took him to Fields in the operations center. Fields said Bales’s T-shirt and pants were covered in blood.
“What the fuck just happened? Where the fuck were you?” Fields asked Bales.
Fields’s immediate concern was his team and the security of the base.
“I didn’t know if I had a Mongol horde coming to take revenge on this location,” Fields said. “So I’m trying to figure that out. What do I need to prepare for?”
Bales just looked down at his feet.
“I’m sorry I let you down,” he told Fields. “I’m sorry.”
Bales refused to tell Fields what happened.
“He said something to the effect of he can’t give more info or I’ll have to testify,” Fields said. “That was the first confirmation that something terrible had happened.”
Fields called his commanders, who sent a helicopter down to pick up Bales. Bales was sent under guard to pack and then waited in his room until the helicopter arrived. The sun was starting to come up as the helicopter left.
Afghans from the surrounding area were starting to come to the base. Fields changed into his uniform in time to get the first report of hundreds of people at the gate.
“In my 45 days on the ground, I hadn’t seen 200 people,” Fields said. “There were not 200 people in those villages that surrounded our base. It was desolate.”
Fields did the battlefield calculus. He had about 50 soldiers at the base. All that stood in the way of an attack was a 4x4 with concertina wire—the base’s iron gate was on order—and a few Americans and Afghan soldiers.
They were outnumbered.
Rather be in a firefight
There were reports that fighters were trying to infiltrate the crowd of villagers at the gate as Fields addressed him. The Afghan guards and American soldiers were in their guard positions. A SEAL team with Afghan commandos showed up later that day just in case the Taliban tried to overrun the base.
No one knew what to expect.
“It was fucking terrifying,” Fields remembers. “I don’t know what they are going to ask. I don’t know what happened. I was bombarded with questions.”
The villagers told Fields about footprints going in and out of the houses and of footprints heading back to the base. They knew the murderer was an American. There was a rumor that it was more than one American, which Fields remembers denying early on.
“There was an American who left this base that we think may be involved in that situation and that guy is gone,” Fields remembers telling the Afghans through an interpreter.
Fields got a sense the Afghans wanted to come into the compound and drag Bales out. But the crowd stayed calm. They waited outside the entire day. Fields tried to give them answers, but even he didn’t have the details.
“You have to go out there and say something,” he said. “You take every question one at a time and try and dodge it.”
He tried to reassure the Afghans that he was on their side and the Army would find out what happened. As he stood in front of the villages, he would have preferred to be under attack.
“A firefight I know how to handle,” Fields said. “A mass murder is something new.”
In the days afterward, Fields’s team was restricted to the base. Just about every day, the base was attacked. All he and his team could do was fire back and wait for the next day’s attack.
“Immediately after the event, the guys were both pissed and confused,” Fields said. “They wanted to know what happened and why he did it. No one seemed to be able to understand what had happened.”
The soldiers at VSP Belambai were left to atone for his crimes.
“As if the area wasn’t dangerous enough already, his actions placed a target on our heads, and each of us was at a heightened level of risk because of it,” Fields said.
They faced a hostile populace. Without intelligence from the locals, it was impossible to counter the roadside bombs that littered the roads and paths around the base, Fields said. The team that replaced Fields after a few weeks was hit particularly hard after the massacre.
“Their Navy EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] tech caught the immediate effect when he stepped on an IED [Improvised Explosive Device] and lost both arms and legs,” Fields said.
He is a quadruple amputee now, Fields said.
His team was sent back to the United States. That was a tremendous blow to the team and Fields.
“To guys in this community, that’s the equivalent of failing, and that’s not something we’re accustomed to,” Fields said. “It’s something you take personally, but it’s even more upsetting when it’s from the actions of one individual who doesn’t follow the mindset of the team.”
When Fields got back to the United States he was in a fog. He couldn’t stop going over the 45 days leading to the incident. He asked himself if there was something he could have done to stop it.
“It was a natural cycle of depression,” Fields said. “You want to justify why it happened. But I don’t think there was anything we could have done.”
Fields is no longer in the Army. He was contemplating getting out of the service before the incident, but afterward the choice was made for him.
“I was pretty much told it doesn’t matter how well I do, this is going to follow me around for the rest of my military career,” Fields said.
Bales’s actions are the antithesis of how American soldiers are trained. Fields said Special Forces soldiers in particular are trained to think about others first. It might sound corny to outside ears. But every decision is weighed against how it affects the team and mission.
“His decision was selfish,” Fields said. “He made a decision that put the lives of those around him in even more danger, and those individuals were forced to deal with the consequences of Bales’s selfish decisions not only in the short term, but for some of them, the rest of their lives.”
His teammates were also saddled with the weight of the Bales incident. Some have gotten out, voluntarily or involuntarily. Fields tells about how one of his team members was thrown out of the Army after being investigated by the DEA. An investigation was opened because there were concerns the soldier was tied to a known drug dealer after purchasing a vehicle from him. The case was dropped and the DEA cleared him, Fields said, but at that point the Army was already forcing the soldier out.
The last time Fields saw Bales was at the November 2012 Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury, at Joint Base Lewis-McCord in Washington. (Bales was subsequently sentenced to life in prison in August 2013.) Fields said he wasn’t permitted to talk with Bales. He answered a few questions from the prosecution and defense attorneys and left.
But he had questions too. Questions that even Bales has failed to answer, questions that are probably unanswerable.
“I just want to know why he felt like he had the authority to take the law into his own hands, to interpret our mission in such a perverse way that led to this kind of outcome,” Fields said. “How could he have been so wrong?”