LAKE TAPPS, Wash. — A diverging portrait of the Army sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers is emerging as records and interviews show a man appreciated by friends and family who won military commendations, yet one who faced professional disappointment, financial trouble and brushes with the law.
The deeper picture included details on how Robert Bales was bypassed for promotion, struggled to pay for his house and eyed a way out of his job at a Washington state military base months before he was accused of the horrific nighttime slaughter in two Afghanistan villages.
While Bales, 38, sat in an isolated cell at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.’s military prison Saturday, classmates and neighbors from suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, remembered him as a “happy-go-lucky” high school football player who took care of a special needs child and watched out for troublemakers in the neighborhood.
But court records and interviews show that the 10-year veteran — with a string of commendations for good conduct after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — had joined the Army after a Florida investment job went sour, had a Seattle-area home condemned, struggled to make payments on another and failed to get a promotion or a transfer a year ago.
His legal troubles included charges that he assaulted a girlfriend and, in a hit-and run accident, ran bleeding in military clothes into the woods, court records show. He told police he fell asleep at the wheel and paid a fine to get the charges dismissed, the records show.
Military officials say that after drinking on a southern Afghanistan base, Bales crept away on March 11 to two slumbering villages overnight, shooting his victims and setting many of them on fire. Nine of the 16 killed were children and 11 belonged to one family.
“This is some crazy stuff if it’s true,” Steve Berling, a high school classmate, said of the revelations about the father of two known as “Bobby” in his hometown of Norwood, Ohio.
Bales hasn’t been charged yet in the shootings, which have endangered complicated relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and threatened to upend U.S. policy over the decade-old war.
His former platoon leader said Saturday Bales was a model soldier inspired by 9/11 to serve, who saved lives in firefights on his second of three Iraq deployments.
“He’s one of the best guys I ever worked with,” said Army Capt. Chris Alexander, who led Bales on a 15-month deployment in Iraq.
“He is not some psychopath. He’s an outstanding soldier who has given a lot for this country.”
But pressing family troubles were hinted at by his wife, Kari, on multiple blogs posted with names like The Bales Family Adventures and BabyBales. A year ago, she wrote that Bales was hoping for a promotion or a transfer after nine years stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, Wash.
“We are hoping to have as much control as possible” over the future, Kari Bales wrote last March 25. “Who knows where we will end up. I just hope that we are able to rent our house so that we can keep it. I think we are both still in shock.”
After Bales lost out on a promotion to E7 — a first-class sergeant — the family hoped to go to either Germany, Italy or Hawaii for an “adventure,” she said. They hoped to move by last summer; instead the Army redeployed his unit — the 2nd Infantry Division of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, named after armored Stryker vehicles — to Afghanistan.
It would be Bales’ fourth tour in a war zone. He joined the military two months after 9/11 and spent more than three years in Iraq during three separate assignments since 2003. His attorney said he was injured twice in Iraq — once losing part of his foot — but his 20 or so commendations do not include the Purple Heart, given to soldiers wounded in combat.
Alexander said Bales wasn’t injured while he oversaw him during their deployment — Bales’ second in Iraq. He called Bales a “very solid” noncommissioned officer who didn’t have more difficulty than his fellow soldiers with battlefield stress. Bales shot at a man aiming a rocket-propelled grenade at his platoon’s vehicle in Mosul, Iraq, sending the grenade flying over the vehicle.
“There’s no doubt he saved lives that day,” Alexander said. The charges he killed civilians is “100 percent out of character for him,” he said.
Bales always loved the military and war history, even as a teenager, said Berling, who played football with him in the early 1990s on a team that included Marc Edwards, a future NFL player and Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots.
“I remember him and the teacher just going back and forth on something like talking about the details of the Battle of Bunker Hill,” he said. “He knew history, all the wars.”
Bales exulted in the role once he finally achieved it. Plunged into battle in Iraq, he told an interviewer for a Fort Lewis base newspaper in 2009 that he and his comrades proved “the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy.”
Bales joined the Army, Berling said, after studying business at Ohio State University — he attended three years but didn’t graduate — and handled investments before the market downturn pushed him out of the business. Florida records show that Bales was a director at an inactive company called Spartina Investments Inc. in Doral, Fla.; his brother, Mark Bales, and a Mark Edwards were also listed as directors.
“I guess he didn’t like it when people lost money,” Berling said.
He was struggling to keep payments on his own home in Lake Tapps, a rural reservoir community about 35 miles south of Seattle; his wife asked to put the house on the market three days before the shootings, real estate Philip Rodocker said.
“She told him she was behind in our payments,” Rodocker told The New York Times. “She said he was on his fourth tour and it was getting kind of old and they needed to stabilize their finances.”
The house was not officially put on the market until Monday; on Tuesday, Rodocker said, Bales’ wife called and asked to take the house off the market, talking of a family emergency.
Bales and his wife bought the Lake Tapps home in 2005, according to records, for $280,000; it was listed this week at $229,000. Overflowing boxes were piled on the front porch, and a U.S. flag leaned against the siding.
The sale may have been a sign of financial troubles. Bales and his wife also own a home in Auburn, about 10 miles north, according to county records, but abandoned it about two years ago, homeowners’ association president Bob Baggett said. Now signs posted on the front door and window by the city warn against occupying the house.
“It was ramshackled,” Baggett said. “They were not dependable. When they left there were vehicles parts left on the front yard...we’d given up on the owners.”
New details about the sergeant rippled across the country on Saturday.
“It’s our Bobby. He was the local hero,” said Michael Blevins, who grew up down the street from him in Norwood, Ohio. The youngest of five boys respected older residents, admonished troublemakers and loved children, even helping another boy in the area who had special needs.
In Washington state, court records showed a 2002 arrest for assault on a girlfriend. Bales pleaded not guilty and was required to undergo 20 hours of anger management counseling, after which the case was dismissed.
A separate hit-and-run charge was dismissed in Sumner, Wash.’s municipal court three years ago, according to records. It isn’t clear from court documents what Bales hit; witnesses saw a man in a military-style uniform, with a shaved head and bleeding, running away.
When deputies found him in the woods, Bales told them he fell asleep at the wheel. He paid about $1,000 in fines and restitution and the case was dismissed in October 2009.
Dan Conway, a military attorney who represented one of four Lewis-McChord soldiers convicted in the deliberate killings of three Afghan civilians in 2010, said whether legal scrapes affect a soldier’s career depends in part on whether they prompt the Army to issue administrative penalties. The punishments are typically recorded in official personnel files.
Over the past decade, Conway said, the military has sometimes been lax in administering such punishments. As a result, soldiers who might be bad apples sometimes remain in service longer than they otherwise might have.
“It’s something you want to note,” Conway said. “The best predictor of future violence is past violence.”
Bales’ lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said he didn’t know if his client had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the shootings, but said it could be an issue at trial if experts believe it’s relevant.
He also said Friday he didn’t know if his client had been drinking the night of the massacre.
Browne didn’t return telephone calls on Saturday. His legal team has said Browne will be meeting with Bales at Fort Leavenworth next week.
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