After five days cloaked in military secrecy, the U.S. soldier suspected in a massacre of 16 Afghan civilians has been identified as a Washington state father of two who underwent anger management counseling a decade ago after an arrest for assault on a girlfriend.
The soldier accused in the killings is Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, his lawyer confirmed Friday. Bales is from Lake Tapps, Wash., a community set amid pine trees surrounding a reservoir about 35 miles south of Seattle.
Bales is married, a father of two young children who was in the midst of his fourth tour in a war zone. Neighbors described him late Friday as good-natured and warm, and recalled seeing him playing outside the family’s modern split-level with his children, ages 3 and 4.
But court records show Bales was arrested at a Tacoma hotel in 2002 for investigation of assault on a woman he dated before he married his wife, his lawyer, John Henry Browne, confirmed. Bales pleaded not guilty, underwent 20 hours of anger management counseling and the case was dismissed, according to court records.
Until late Friday, nearly all the very limited information known about Bales had come either from unnamed military officials or Browne.
Even seemingly straightforward information raised questions not easily answered – such as a possible defense based on post-traumatic stress disorder.
For example, Bales lost part of one foot because of injuries suffered in Iraq during one of his three tours of duty there, his lawyer said. Browne also said that when the 11-year veteran heard he was being sent to Afghanistan late last year, he did not want to go. Browne also said that a day before the rampage through two villages, the soldier saw a comrade’s leg blown off.
The same goes for the possibility that alcohol played a role.
On Friday, a senior U.S. defense official said Bales was drinking alcohol in the hours before the attack on Afghan villagers, violating a U.S. military order banning alcohol in war zones.
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.
Neighbors, though, recalled a man who was stoic about his time at war and didn’t let on much.
“He always had a good attitude about being in the service,” said Kassie Holland, who lives next door. “He was never really angry about it. When I heard him talk, he said … ‘Yeah, that’s my job. That’s what I do.’ He never expressed a lot of emotion toward it.”
Holland called Bales a kind-hearted neighbor. “I can’t believe it was him,” she said. “There were no signs. It’s really sad. I don’t want to believe that he did it.”
The soldier was flown Friday to the U.S. military’s only maximum-security prison, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said a senior Department of Defense official.
The move to the U.S. does not necessarily mean an announcement of formal criminal charges is imminent, a Defense official said.
Browne has said the suspect is originally from the Midwest but now lives near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The sergeant’s family says they saw no signs of aggression or anger. “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, said to have received sniper training, is assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, of the 2nd Infantry Division, which is based at Lewis-McChord and has been dispatched to Iraq three times since 2003, military officials say.
The soldier was injured twice in Iraq, Browne said. A battle-related injury required surgery to remove part of one foot, the lawyer said.
But Browne and government officials differ in their portrayal of a second injury, to the soldier’s head, in a vehicle accident.
A government official said this week that the accident was not related to combat. But Browne said the man suffered a concussion in an accident caused by an improvised explosive device.
Browne also said his client was “highly decorated” but did not provide any specifics.
When he returned to the Seattle area, the staff sergeant at first thought he would not be required to join his unit when it shipped out for Afghanistan, the lawyer said. His family thought he was done fighting and was counting on him staying home. Until orders came dispatching him to Afghanistan, he was training to be a military recruiter, Browne said.
“He wasn’t thrilled about going on another deployment,” Browne said.
Bales arrived in Afghanistan in December. On Feb. 1 he was assigned to a base in the Panjwayi District, near Kandahar, to work with a village stability force that pairs 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.
The other soldier’s “leg was blown off, and my client was standing next to him,” he said.
Browne said he did not know if his client had been suffering from PTSD, but he 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 his 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.”