The Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who murdered 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime rampage last year is in court this week fighting for a chance to one day receive parole from his expected life sentence.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, in June admitted that he twice snuck out of his combat outpost in Kandahar Province in March 2012 to slaughter Afghans in separate villages. His guilty plea spared him a possible death sentence.
Murder carries a mandatory minimum life sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, meaning Bales’ best possible outcome this week would be a life sentence with an opportunity for parole.
Bales’ attorneys plan to argue that a set of extreme emotional, physical and chemical influences caused the soldier to lose control of himself on what his fourth combat deployment with a Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Before the massacre, Bales was known as a father of two who had proven himself in combat and looked forward to a solid future in the military.
Prosecutors, however, are unlikely to go easy on Bales this week even after the guilty plea. They’re expected to call on nine Afghan villagers who survived the attack or are mourning loved ones Bales killed. The villagers are being flown to Lewis-McChord this week.
The slaughter in Kandahar set back the war effort at a sensitive moment coming just a month after American soldiers mistakenly burned copies of Islamic holy books at Bagram Air Field. Both incidents caused Americans at home to question the direction of the war and led Afghans to call for an end for the long-running U.S. presence in their country.
Before he left for Afghanistan, Bales distinguished himself as a solid noncommissioned officer on three tours to Iraq. He was popular at the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in Tacoma, and he seemed to be in line for an eventual promotion that would keep in the Army until retirement.
His leaders handed him a tough assignment on his last tour because they thought he was up to it, they testified at a pretrial hearing. He was assigned to an infantry battalion that was splintered up into small groups throughout southern Afghanistan supporting Special Forces teams. As a result, Bales was not in eyesight of his normal chain of command.
Things went awry at his outpost, Village Stability Platform Belambay in Kandahar’s Panjwai District. Bales took steroids and drank alcohol, according to court testimony. He was under the influence of both substances in the early hours of March 11, 2012, when he slaughtered the villagers.
The Special Forces unit he supported reportedly suffered a nonfatal casualty in the weeks before the massacre, and soldiers testified at a pretrial hearing last year that Bales wanted to be more aggressive in pursuing the attackers.
Bales’ attorneys have said to reporters that the soldier had received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and a past head injury prior to his last deployment. He returned to his outpost from the killing spree bizarrely wearing a sheet like a cape, according to a surveillance video Army prosecutors presented at a pretrial hearing last year.
Bales might have been taking an anti-malaria drug called Lariam that has been associated with neurological and psychological side effects. The Food and Drug Administration last year received a notice suggesting a soldier taking the medicine had killed “17 Afghanis,” an apparent reference to Bales.
However, soldiers from his unit were handed a different anti-malaria drug when they deployed out of Lewis-McChord and defense attorneys have not presented any firm evidence suggesting that Bales had Lariam on his last tour.
Those mitigating factors contrast with other incidents from Bales’ biography that suggest the Ohio native had a short temper in his civilian life and that he could have been struggling at home at the time of his last deployment.
Before enlisting, he was accused of defrauding an elderly couple and an arbitrator leveled a $1.5 million fine against him. He reportedly ignored the penalty.
He was arrested in Tacoma in July 2002 following a drunken fight at a local casino. The incident happened before his first deployment.
He was arrested again on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol in University Place in 2005. In 2008, he was cited for a misdemeanor hit and run in Sumner.
Bales reportedly was disappointed that he was not promoted to sergeant first class in 2011 before his Afghanistan deployment. His friends testified last year that he sometimes complained about frustrations with his family before the Afghanistan mission, but they thought he wanted to deploy and earn the promotion he had just missed.
His immediate supervisor, 1st Sgt. Vernon Bigham, testified last year that Bales was a good candidate to move up the ranks. Bigham also said he had a plan to help Bales make sergeant first class on that deployment or just afterward.
Today Bales is expected to appear in court at Lewis-McChord for a motions hearing where his attorneys and Army prosecutors likely will spar over remaining disagreements before the sentencing trial begins Tuesday.
Last week, Bales’ attorneys sought to have the Army prosecutors removed from the case because they mistakenly received a mental health evaluation that they were not supposed to read. Army Judge Col. Jeffery Nance rejected the defense motion.
Bales’ case will be heard before a panel of military jurors who are expected to be selected today.