LAKE TAPPS, Wash. — On a winding road of wood-frame homes tucked amid towering pines, Robert Bales was the father who joined his two young children for playtime in the yard, a career soldier who greeted neighbors warmly but was guarded when talking about the years he spent away at war.
“When I heard him talk, he said ... ‘Yeah, that’s my job. That’s what I do’,” said Kassie Holland, a next-door neighbor to the soldier who is now suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians. “He never expressed a lot of emotion toward it.”
Speaking to his fellow soldiers, though, Bales could exult in the role. Plunged into battle in Iraq, he told an interviewer for a base newspaper in 2009 that he and his comrades proved “the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy.”
As reporters swarmed Bales’ neighborhood late Friday, Holland and other neighbors shook their heads, trying but failing to reconcile the man they thought they knew with the allegations against him. Military officials say that at about 3 a.m. last Sunday, the 38-year-old staff sergeant crept away from the Army base where he was stationed in southern Afghanistan, entered two slumbering villages and unleashed a massacre, shooting his victims and setting many of the bodies on fire. Eleven of those killed belonged to one family. Nine were children.
“I can’t believe it was him,” said Holland, recalling a kind-hearted neighbor who grew up in Ohio, a “happy-go-lucky” football player and a good student at Norwood High School in a suburb of Cincinnati, a former teacher said.
“There were no signs. It’s really sad. I don’t want to believe that he did it,” said Jack Bouldin, a retired Norwood High School teacher who was Bales physical education teacher.
Until Friday, military officials had kept Bales’ identity secret and what little was known about him remained sketchy. But with the release of his name, a still-incomplete, but sharply conflicting portrait of the man comes into focus. Part of it reveals the father and husband neighbors recall, and a soldier quietly proud of his 11-year record of service, including three tours in Iraq.
But it also shows Bales had previous brushes with trouble. In 2002, records show, he was arrested at a Tacoma, Wash., hotel for assault on a girlfriend. Bales pleaded not guilty and was required to undergo 20 hours of anger management counseling, after which the case was dismissed. A separate hit-and-run charge was dismissed in a nearby town’s municipal court three years ago, according to records.
Bales has not yet been charged in the killings in Afghanistan. He was flown Friday from Kuwait to the military’s only maximum-security prison, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. When the Air Force cargo jet with the soldier aboard arrived at Kansas City International Airport, about an hour from the military prison, security was very tight, with the terminal completely blocked off. It marked the tragic end of Bales’ fourth tour of duty in a war zone, one his lawyer said he had hoped to avoid.
“He wasn’t thrilled about going on another deployment,” said the attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle. “He was told he wasn’t going back, and then he was told he was going.”
A neighbor, Paul Wohlberg, recalled that when he last saw Bales in November the two men talked briefly about the soldier’s imminent departure for Afghanistan.
“I just told him to be safe. He said, ‘I will. See you when I get back,” said Wohlberg, who recalled attending barbeques at the Bales’ homes.
Wohlberg described Bales as a man who clearly loved his country.
“I’m sure he still does,” he said.
Bales told neighbors little about his brigade’s three tours of duty to Iraq. But in a 2009 article published in Fort Lewis’ Northwest Guardian, Bales told the interviewer about finding many dead and wounded when his unit was sent to recover a downed Apache helicopter in Iraq.
“I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day, for the simple fact that 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, “ Bales said.
After returning from his second deployment to Iraq, Bales was elevated to staff sergeant. In three tours of duty, Browne says his client was injured twice. One of those injuries required the surgical removal of part of one foot. In a vehicle accident, Bales suffered a concussion, the lawyer said.
But by last year, the soldier had reached a disappointing juncture. Bales received more than 20 awards and commendations, including three Army Good Conduct medals. But military files show a largely unremarkable service record, absent the Purple Heart awards that would be expected following a significant injury or wound in combat.
Then he was passed over for a promotion, according to a posting by his wife on her blog, The Bales Family Adventures.
“It is very disappointed after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends,” Karilyn Bales wrote early last year on the blog, which could not be independently verified. “I am sad and disappointed too, but I am also relieved, we can finally move on to the next phase of our lives.”
The best case scenario for that next phase, Karilyn Bales wrote, would be an Army assignment in an adventurous location like Germany, Italy or Hawaii, and barring that, possibly an assignment in Georgia, where her husband could become a sniper instructor.
“We are hoping that if we are proactive and ask to go to a location that the Army will allow us to have some control over where we go next,” Karilyn Bailey wrote.
By late last year, Bales was training to be an Army recruiter, Bales’ lawyer said. When he learned he would be dispatched to Afghanistan, Bales and his family were very disappointed. Still, the staff sergeant’s family saw no indication sign of undue anger, Browne said.
“They were totally shocked,” by accounts of the massacre, Browne said. “He’s never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He’s in general very mild-mannered.”
Bales departed with his unit on Dec. 3 and was assigned about six weeks ago to a base in the Panjwai District, near Kandahar, to work with a village stability force pairing special operations troops with villagers to help provide neighborhood security.
On Saturday, the day before the shooting spree, Browne said, the soldier saw his friend’s leg blown off. Browne said his client’s family provided him with that information, which has not been verified.
On Friday, a senior U.S. defense official said Bales was drinking in the hours before the attack on Afghan villagers, violating a U.S. military order banning alcohol in war zones. The official discussed the matter on condition of anonymity because charges have not yet been filed.
Browne said his client’s family told him they were not aware of any drinking problem — not necessarily a contradiction. Pressed on the issue in interviews with news organizations, Browne said he did not know if his client had been drinking the night of the massacre.
Then, in the middle of the night last Sunday, shots rang out in a pair of villages within walking distance of the base. Soon after, a surveillance camera mounted to a blimp captured an image of a soldier the Army identifies as Bales returning in the dark. A traditional Afghan shawl was draped over the gun in his hands. As he reached the gates of the base, the man in uniform lay the weapon down. He raised his arms in surrender.
Browne said he did not know if his client had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but said it could be an issue at trial if experts believe it’s relevant. Experts on PTSD said witnessing the injury of a fellow soldier and the soldier’s own previous injuries put him at risk.
“We’ve known ever since the Vietnam war that the unfortunate phenomenon of abusive violence often closely follows the injury or death of a buddy in combat,” said Dr. Roger Pitman, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who heads the PTSD Research Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The injury or death of a buddy creates a kind of a blind rage.”
On Friday evening, Bales’ neighbors said they did not know what to think. They gazed toward the soldier’s home, where overflowing boxes were piled on the front porch and a U.S. flag leaned against the siding.
“I just can’t believe Bob’s the guy who did this,” Wohlberg said. “A good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time.”