Stunned Friends Recall Good Deeds of Afghanistan Killings Suspect
By the CNN Wire Staff
He is accused of a horrific and brutal massacre — the slaughter of innocent civilians, including women and children, in their homes in two Afghan villages.
The accusations are met with bewilderment from those who know U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales — a man who, despite bearing scars from wounds he received in three previous tours in Iraq, remained passionately committed to serving his country and cared deeply for others.
“Regardless of what happened, Bobby has been changed forever,” said Bob Durham, who knew Bales when he was growing up in Ohio. “If the Bobby that I knew ever gets well, comes back to it, and realizes what has happened, and realizes that children and women were killed, I don’t think he can live with it. He’ll never be the same. He’s such a great person … that crushes me.”
Bales was set to meet with his defense attorney, John Henry Browne, of Seattle, on Monday at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Army staff sergeant was taken there on Friday.
Bales, who is in his late 30s, is accused of leaving a remote U.S. combat post on foot in the predawn hours of March 11 and gunning down Afghans in their homes. In all, 16 villagers were killed, nine of them children.
Bales has not been formally charged in relation to the killings, though the military has made a determination of probable cause that allows him to be detained.
The deaths have outraged Afghans and further strained already tense relations between the two nations. They also shocked those who know and love Bales, including his wife and two children.
“Sgt. Bales’ family is stunned in the face of this tragedy, but they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services,” attorney Emma Scanlan said in a statement Saturday.
Bales grew up and attended school in Norwood, a Cincinnati suburb of about 19,000 people, according to people who knew him.
As a teenager, Durham recalled, Bales helped care for Durham’s severely disabled son. Even though Bales was a popular football player, he never hesitated to take the younger boy along wherever he was headed, Durham said.
“I love the guy,” he said. “He’s a part of my family. I’ve known him since the day he was born.”
After Bales was graduated from Norwood High School in 1991, he played football while attending the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, according to two family friends. Records indicate he lived at multiple addresses in the Columbus area in the ensuing years.
He joined the Army two months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and in September 2002 was assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, the military has said.
Also in 2002, public records show he had a brush with the law, facing a criminal assault charge in a Tacoma court. He pleaded not guilty; the case was eventually dismissed. The Wall Street Journal reported that a judge ordered him to undergo anger management counseling.
He first deployed to Iraq in 2003, then again in 2006, serving 15 straight months as part of then-President George W. Bush’s “surge” of 20,000 additional troops.
During that second tour, Browne has said, Bales was wounded and had to have part of his foot amputated.
An Army account recalled a 2007 incident in Iraq, when an operation to recover a helicopter shot down near Najaf turned into more of a humanitarian mission to help wounded civilians.
According to the account, Bales — then serving as a team leader — said he was “proud” and that his unit “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,” said Bales in the account, published online in February 2009.
He deployed to Iraq a third time between 2009 and 2010, according to the military. He suffered a traumatic brain injury when his vehicle flipped after striking a roadside bomb, his attorney said.
The Army summary lists multiple decorations for Bales, including three Army “good conduct” medals.
Bales’ family was “not happy” about his fourth deployment, this time to Afghanistan, his attorney has said. “He was told that he was not going to be redeployed,” Brown said.
They were also disappointed that he was not promoted to sergeant first class, according to blog posts written by his wife a year ago and published Friday by the Tacoma News-Tribune.
“It is very disappointing 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. “I am sad and disappointed too, but I am also relieved, we can finally move on to the next phase of our lives.”
The family was preparing to move last year, hoping to be stationed in Germany, Italy, Hawaii, Kentucky — which, Karilyn Bales noted, would be “near Bob’s family” — or Georgia,” to be a sniper teacher,” she wrote of her husband, according to the newspaper.
However, records show the family was under financial pressure, forced to put their Lake Tapps, Washington, home on the market last week for $229,000 — less than the $280,000 they purchased it for in 2006.
The Baleses were “happy” and “normal,” according to neighbor Cassie Holland.
“We would go over there for birthday parties and they would come to my kids’ birthday parties,” she said. “I would describe (Bales) as super fun to hang around with, kind of the life of the party kind of guy. Super loving, great with his kids. I don’t see how this has happened.”
Before buying the home, the family owned a townhouse in a modest, middle-class neighborhood in Auburn, Washington, about 30 minutes from the military base.
Tim Burgess, whose townhouse shared a wall with the Baleses, said Bales was “a really good guy (who) just wanted to serve.”
“I know he just wanted to go back and serve overseas, that was his goal,” he said, adding the two had not spoken in about five years.
After the family moved out, there were occasional renters in the townhouse, said Robert Baggett, president of the Riverpark Homeowners Association. Several years ago, the townhouse went into foreclosure. The family also did not pay their homeowners’ association fees for “at least three or four years,” he said.
“We don’t know what happened,” Baggett said of the Baleses and their Auburn property, which Sunday had a notice posted on its door that read “Do Not Occupy.”
— CNN’s Susan Candiotti, Moni Basu, Ross Levitt and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.