In gripping and heart-wrenching testimony Tuesday, an Afghan farmer described how Staff Sgt. Robert Bales shot him in the face at close range during an early morning rampage that killed 16 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children.
"This bastard stood right in front of me!" said Haji Naim to a military panel of two colonels, a lieutenant colonel, a master sergeant, and two command sergeant majors. "I wanted to ask him, ‘What did I do? What have I done to you?' ... And he shot me!"
Naim was one of seven Afghans who were flown in by the army to testify in Bales’s sentencing hearing, which is being held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington. The hearing will determine if Bales, a 39-year-old married father of two, will spend the rest of his life in prison or one day become eligible for parole. The proceedings are expected to last at least one week.
In March of 2012, Bales, armed with a 9mm pistol and an M-4 rifle and wearing night vision goggles, sneaked into two villages outside Camp Belambay in southern Afghanistan. He first attacked a village called Alkozai. He then returned to his post, told a soldier what he had done, and then attacked a second village called Najiban.
The killings marked the worst slaughter of civilians by a single soldier since the Vietnam War, and strained the already tumultuous relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan.
Last June, in a deal that spared him the death penalty, Bales pleaded guilty and admitted that his intent was to kill all the villagers. He also told the judge that he did not remember burning some of the bodies with kerosene but did recall that he had matches in his pocket and was carrying a lantern. When asked by the judge why he wanted to kill them, the soldier responded: “I’ve asked myself that question a million times since then, and there is not a good reason in the world for doing the horrible thing I did.”
Bales’s defense attorneys have said that Bales, who was on his fourth combat deployment, was taking steroids, snorting Valium, and drinking excessively prior to the massacre. They’ve also suggested that he suffered from head injuries as well as posttraumatic stress disorder.
“The defense will try to convince members that he was in a dark place in his life,” Andrew Cherkasky, a civilian military defense attorney based in California who is not involved in the case, says of the strategy of Bales’s lawyers. “We don’t want to throw away the key because the key may be able to be rehabilitated. They will try to prove that it is really isolated and that he has never done anything violent in the past.”
The military’s awareness of the effects of PTSD may play in Bales’s favor as well. “There is an increased sympathy for those suffering from PTSD,” said Cherkasky. “I think in the military there is a real sensitivity for combat-related stress.”
The members of the military panel are stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which is made up of the United States Army’s Fort Lewis and the United States Air Force’s McChord Air Force Base, as is Bales. “It is ground zero for PTSD,” says Charlie Swift, a military defense attorney who defended Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the first detainee to be charged at Guantánamo Bay. “It is where everyone has done deployment after deployment.”
“If these officers have themselves experienced soldiers that have PTSD, then in my experience they will be receptive to it,” says Dallas military criminal defense attorney Patrick J. Mclain. “If they haven’t had a subordinate who has suffered from it they really don’t get it and can be harsh.”
“Bales is the beginning and not the end,” says Swift of the PTSD cases. “If anyone thinks otherwise is simply not paying attention. No army in modern history has ever done what the U.S. army has done. In Vietnam and Korea, soldiers barely saw 15 actual days in combat. These guys have hundreds. We have used the professional army to its absolute max. Isn’t it foreseeable that someone would break like Bales did? It’s easier to blame Bales than the system.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, prosecutors portrayed Bales as a man who was unhappy with his overweight wife, in financial distress, and was bitter that he had been passed up for a promotion.
“Prosecutors are trying to trivialize the reasons for him doing this and diminish his stature in the eyes of the jury,” said Mclain. “He is not some psychologically damaged combat veteran but a creep and boor who was upset over things that are common in the population in general and used it as a reason to commit mass murder.”
Prosecutors also laid out in gruesome detail the carnage inflicted by Bales that included, among the atrocities, executing a young girl who was pleading for him to stop hurting her father, using his foot to crush the skull of an elderly woman whom he shot for confronting him, and firing seemingly unfazed into rooms of children.
Cherkasky says that the prosecution is making the point clear to the panel that Bales’s actions were nothing more than a gruesome massacre. “They were noncombatants and there was no reason to do this other than he was blood-thirsty,” he said.
Even if the panel buys Bales’s PTSD claims, the crime itself may be too hard to overcome. “There are limits with what people will accept,” Cherkasky said. “Oftentimes people in the military and civilian world won’t allow it to be an excuse for the crime but will consider it for mitigation. One of the key factors will be the rehabilitation. The panel will have to consider the rehabilitation potential of the accused.”
However, he might find sympathy if any of the panel members served time in combat. “Those are the individuals who will be closest to his brother in arms and would understand what he is going through,” said Cherkasky. “They are using the weapons and risking their lives most directly. They are the ones who would likely understand.”
Mclain concurs. “It depends if they have been there and seen how it was and can get past all the stories sold to the media and see how it really is, and they might have empathy for Bales. Your hope here is sympathy based on life experiences of the panel. They may be more sympathetic to presenting Bales as a person who was pushed to a breaking point if they have had similar situations to him.”
During the sentencing, Swift says that prosecutors will most likely bring up how Bales’s conduct damaged the military’s mission in Afghanistan. “You will hear that this hurt the American fighting effort and that it is a legitimate reason to sentence someone to life,” he said. “All they have to do is bring in a senior officer to say it affected the mission and the Afghans were less likely to trust us. The Taliban used this extensively in their propaganda, thus it affected the mission. It is bad for our business.”
Swift believes that the defense has an uphill climb. “We know he won’t get a needle stuck in his arm,” he said. “For the defense to get life with the possibility of parole would be an accomplishment. It’s the politics of it. This is by far the worst war crime since Vietnam by American troops. It will absolutely weigh heavily on their decision.”