If soldier killed Afghan civilians in rampage, did he act alone?
JOINT BASE LEWIS MCCHORD, Wash. — The case against U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales appeared at first to be horribly simple: Days after a bomb blew off the leg of a friend in southern Afghanistan, the 39-year-old combat veteran picked up his rifle, a pistol and a grenade launcher, walked to two villages and allegedly conducted a one-man campaign of vengeance, killing 16 civilians and wounding six more.
But by the time a weeklong hearing wound up Tuesday in a military courtroom, one of the Army’s highest-profile war crimes from Afghanistan raised almost as many questions as it answered.
If Bales acted alone, why were shots heard coming from one of the villages 20 minutes after he was spotted returning to the base for the first time?
Why was a witness who claimed to have seen two U.S. soldiers killing her husband while helicopters flew overhead not brought in to testify?
Why were the crime scenes so very different — at one house, a surgical execution of the head of the family, while at the next house, 11 men, women and children were shot and possibly stabbed, their bodies piled in a heap and burned?
The Article 32 hearing, held to determine whether there was evidence to hold the serviceman for a court-martial, drew a portrait not just of a rogue soldier, defense lawyers said. It revealed a U.S. combat outpost at which soldiers spent their evenings drinking alcohol, snorting Valium and taking steroids, all three of which Bales apparently had done before asking a friend to “take care of my kids” and setting out into the darkness outside the base perimeter, laughing.
“We have a dysfunctional, drinking and drugging … team,” civilian defense lawyer Emma Scanlan said in her closing argument.
“We can’t isolate Sgt. Bales within a bubble,” Scanlan said, noting that he was under the supervision of Special Forces officers. “They are the command. They are in charge. And they are terrible at it.”
Army prosecutors claim Bales acted alone and with chilling rationality: walking to the village of Alkozai, where he is accused of killing four people and wounding six, coming back to the base and telling a friend what he had done, then venturing out again to the village of Najiban, where he is accused of killing 12.
When Bales returned to Camp Belambay the second time, he admitted to friends he had done some “sick” things, and told them they would thank him when fighting season got underway again during warmer weather later in the spring, said prosecutor Maj. Robert Stelle.
“Terrible, terrible things happened. That is clear. The second thing that is clear is that Staff Sgt. Bales did it,” Stelle said.
He urged investigating officer Col. Lee Deneke to recommend a full court-martial and that it be tried as a capital case, with the possibility of the death penalty. Bales committed “the worst, most despicable crime a human being can commit: murdering children in their own homes,” Stelle said.
If Deneke recommends a court-martial, a lengthy process of mental health evaluations and further forensic reports will follow. Defense lawyers have pledged there will be a full exploration of the medical care Bales received at the Madigan Army Medical Center for an earlier traumatic brain injury.
The hospital south of Seattle was the subject of an investigation this year for tossing aside diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, making it harder for those soldiers to receive follow-up medical care.
In the year before the shootings, Scanlan said, Bales had received an exemplary evaluation, in which he was praised for “a strong moral compass, never wavering from what was right.”
What went wrong?
Scanlan suggested part of the answer might lie in the steroids and sleep aids Bales was taking, along with the Jack Daniels he drank with two friends on the evening before the killings as they watched “Man on Fire,” a movie about a former CIA operative who executes a violent campaign of revenge.
“They drank a ton, and they were all drunk,” Scanlan said, noting that testimony showed that one of the soldiers who’d been drinking with Bales that night, Cpl. David Godwin, was stumbling, slurring his words and smelled like alcohol four hours later.
The prosecution said Bales had plenty of time to reach both villages and return at the end of the night with his clothing and weapons covered in blood. Before he left, prosecutors said, he had discussed his frustration with the Army’s lack of response to the bomb that blew off his friend’s leg; after his arrest, he reminded one soldier of an Afghan machine gunner the unit had faced earlier.
“That’s not going to happen again,” Bales said, according to Staff Sgt. Ross O’Rourke.
Prosecutors also established that DNA from at least one of the women killed at the home of Haji Mohammed Wazir in Najiban was found on Bales’ clothing.
Yet defense lawyers continue to raise questions about whether Bales was the only one responsible — whether one person could have killed so many people in so many locations in one night.
A lot of the evidence suggests otherwise, Scanlan said, pointing to an agent from the Army’s Criminal Investigations Command who said that Masuma Dawood, whose husband was shot, told her that two soldiers had killed her husband.
Army officials said Dawood did not testify because of “cultural differences,” and the reluctance of Afghan families to allow a woman to testify in an American courtroom, even by remote video from Afghanistan. But sources in Afghanistan have told the Los Angeles Times that Dawood was, in fact, willing to testify.
Scanlan said the timeline laid out by prosecutors also raises questions, beginning with the Afghan guard who testified that he checked his watch, and was certain that the U.S. soldier he saw — returning from the initial killings in Alkozai, prosecutors allege — had returned to Camp Belambay at 1:30 a.m.
The shots heard from the direction of Alkozai didn’t stop till 1:50 a.m., the defense attorney said.
“I don’t know what that means,” Scanlan said. “But one thing it means is, if you believe what the government is telling you, that Sgt. Bales is the one who came back through that wire at 1:30, then somebody else was firing for another 20 minutes.”