There is still only sketchy information available about Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' recent experience in Afghanistan, but five years ago in Iraq, he was considered an excellent and upbeat soldier.
Bales is suspected of killing 16 unarmed Afghan civilians last Sunday. He has yet to be charged, and his civilian lawyers say they will meet with him at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to learn the facts of the case.
Friends and neighbors describe Bales as a dedicated husband and father, and they keep mentioning his "sunny" disposition. Bales' fellow soldiers tell the same story. Capt. Chris Alexander, Bales' platoon leader in Iraq, says he "always kind of had a smile on his face."
Saving Lives In Iraq
Alexander and Bales were in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, during the troop surge. Bales headed up a "fire team," a subunit in one of Alexander's squads.
"He was one of those guys that can just kind of joke around during downtime," Alexander says, and then get down to business when it was necessary.
They were part of a Stryker Brigade, deployed from Washington state's Fort Lewis. The Strykers are eight-wheel vehicles that are armored for combat, but still nimble enough for the tight quarters of urban warfare. Alexander says the vehicle's armor caused some soldiers to get complacent about keeping an eye out — but not Bales. One day in the city of Mosul, his attentiveness saved lives.
"A guy popped around the corner with a [rocket-propelled grenade]... [Bales] saw it right away before the guy launched, and he actually hit the guy and caused the round to go high, so it missed all of us," Alexander says.
Bales was decorated for good conduct, but he never received a medal for valor. He was nominated for one, after the Battle of Najaf in January of 2007, by Maj. Brent Clemmer, then captain.
Stationed in Washington, Clemmer has known about Bales' alleged role in the massacre for almost a week now, but he's been reluctant to talk to the news media. He agreed to talk to NPR if he wasn't recorded.
He recalls Bales as "a really good" non-commissioned officer and "one of those guys who was always positive." He underscores that point with a snapshot of Bales' unit. In a group of soldiers posed around a Stryker vehicle, Bales is the guy in the middle with the biggest grin.
His old platoon leader, Alexander, says he's heard the theory that Bales may have "snapped," but he says that's hard for him to picture.
"He had about the same stress level as any of the rest of us, and he seemed to handle it very well," he says.
Still, that was 2007. Since then, a lot has happened to Bales. On his third Iraq tour, he was injured. He lost part of a foot and suffered an unspecified traumatic brain injury. Back in the U.S., he failed to get a promotion he'd been hoping for. Then he was told he had to go on a fourth combat deployment, this time to Afghanistan.
"I've talked to people who have done both Iraq and Afghanistan, and they say they'd pick Iraq any day of the week because Afghanistan is just so brutal," Alexander says. "Something just finally — his glass filled up, and that was it."
That's already shaping up as a possible legal defense. On Thursday, Bales' civilian lawyer made a point of introducing reporters to a psychiatrist who's made a career testifying about post-traumatic stress disorder in court.
But for many, that explanation isn't sufficient. One week on, Clemmer says he still can't get his head around the idea that Bales killed those civilians. He adds, "You can't forgive it if he did it."
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