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Robert Bales: From small-town Ohio to Afghanistan

By James Dao

New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 10:01 a.m. HST, Mar 19, 2012


He was not the star, just a well-regarded young man who seemed to try to do the right thing. That was Robert Bales, “our Bobby,” friends said. He was a busy, popular kid, but he made time for the autistic man down the block. Other neighborhood boys admired him. As a high school linebacker, he was good enough to be captain, but also gracious enough to help a more talented player take over his starting position. It was good for the team, he said.

That solid-guy reputation followed him into the Army infantry. He joined at the relatively seasoned age of 27, just a few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and became respected for his maturity and calm, including in battle. “He was a damn good leader and a damn good soldier,” said Zachary Parsons, who served with Staff Sgt. Bales in Iraq in 2007.

So when many of his old neighbors from Norwood, Ohio, and former battalion mates from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state heard the news that Bales had been accused of cold-bloodedly shooting to death 16 Afghan civilians on March 11, nine of them children, they were not simply shocked. They grieved.

Michelle Caddell, 48, who knew Bales when he was growing up, watched a video clip of the news over and over and over again, mesmerized by disbelief. “I wanted to see, maybe, a different face,” she said, fighting back tears. “Because that’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”

Friends, family and his lawyer say they have an idea of what that horrible thing was: war.

Three deployments in Iraq, where he saw heavy fighting, and a fourth in Afghanistan, where he went reluctantly, left him struggling financially, in danger of losing his home.

And there were more direct impacts. During his deployments, Bales, 38, lost part of a foot and injured his head, saw fellow soldiers badly wounded, picked up the bodies of dead Iraqis, was treated for mild traumatic brain injury and possibly developed post-traumatic stress disorder, his lawyer and military officials said.

But there are also glimpses of a darker story line. Bales’ past includes an arrest on a misdemeanor charge of assault on a woman, dropped after he completed anger management counseling; an accident in which he overturned his car, something he attributed to falling asleep at the wheel; and an accumulation of rejections and disappointments.

A year ago, according to a blog kept by his wife, he was denied a promotion to sergeant first class, a rank that would have brought not just added responsibility and respect but also money at a time when his finances seemed stretched.

Neighbors remember him, in between earlier deployments, as a gung-ho solider, eager to get back to the fight. But that seemed to have changed. He trained to become a recruiter, a job that would have allowed him to skip Afghanistan, but the Army kept him in the infantry. And though he felt his injuries were significant enough to keep him out of combat, his lawyer said, Army doctors said he was fit to deploy. Weeks later, he arrived in one of the roughest precincts of Afghanistan.

A long legal process — starting with the formal filing of charges in the coming weeks and ending, most likely, in a court-martial — will sort out whether Bales was guilty of atrocities and may shed light on which, if any, or these factors played a role.

From dozens of interviews with lawyers, friends and military officials, competing legal narratives are already starting to emerge.

A military official, speaking anonymously, has said Bales had marital problems, felt stressed by the Afghanistan deployment and snapped after drinking alcohol before the shootings.

His lawyers contend Bales had a solid marriage and no drinking problems. If he cracked, they said, it was because he probably had PTSD that the Army failed to diagnose, had been dispatched to a war he did not want to fight and had seen a buddy gravely wounded just before the killings.

Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired brigadier general who was an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, said that after a decade of combat, where hundreds of thousands of troops have suffered traumatic brain injury and PTSD, those syndromes by themselves seem inadequate to explain how a seemingly normal and widely admired sergeant might have single-handedly committed one of the worst war crimes of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

With his multiple deployments and wounds, Xenakis said, Bales seems emblematic of bigger problems: an overstretched military battered by 11 years of combat; failures by the military to properly identify and treat its weary, suffering troops; and the thin line dividing “normal” behavior in war from what later is deemed “snapping.”

“This is equivalent to what My Lai did to reveal all the problems with the conduct of the Vietnam War,” Xenakis said. “The Army will want to say that soldiers who commit crimes are rogues, that they are individual, isolated cases. But they are not.”

INSPIRATIONAL TEENAGER

Bales grew up in Norwood, a modest suburb of Cincinnati, the youngest of five boys who lived in a two-story brick home still known as “the Bales house,” though no Baleses live in it anymore. The family was that well known, and that well liked.

“They’re down-home country,” Caddell said.

Bobby was a gregarious, chatty, engaged child who played football and threw himself into an array of clubs and activities, including theater. In his yearbook, he signed the football team photo with a nickname, “Doom,” and is listed on the “senior superlatives” page as one of the best dancers in his class.

“He’s one of those kids you remember,” said David C. Griffel, the principal of Norwood High School when Bales attended. “A real extrovert.”

Bales was a leader on the football team, a feisty middle linebacker who was not big but strong, able to bench press 300 pounds.

But in his junior year, a freshman star named Marc Edwards arrived, and the coach wanted him to be the starting middle linebacker. There might have been an unpleasant rivalry, but instead Bales shared tips on the position.

“He got the idea in that situation that Marc was going to be better for the team,” said Aaron M. Smith, the author of a book about Edwards.

Edwards was surprised by Bales’ generosity. “He credited Bob Bales with teaching him what leadership meant, and how to handle a situation that doesn’t favor you,” Smith said.

Edwards went on to be named Ohio’s “Mr. Football” for 1992 and to play for Notre Dame, the San Francisco 49ers, the Cleveland Browns, the New England Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Bales was enrolled in the College of Mount St. Joseph in 1991 and 1992. He attended Ohio State University from 1993 until 1996, declaring an economics major, according to Jim Lynch, a university spokesman. It is not clear why he left, Lynch said.

Details about Bales’ life during the next several years are sketchy. Friends and his lawyer said he had worked in financial services in Columbus, Ohio, then started an investment business with his brother Mark. No sign remains of their Spartina Investments at the modest office building where they leased space in Doral, Fla., a few blocks west of Miami International Airport and south of the Doral Golf Resort and Spa.

By November 2001, he had joined the Army.

“It wasn’t really anger when he joined,” said Michael Blevins, 35, a childhood friend. “It was — they had hurt something,” he added, referring to the terrorists.

Caddell said that she had worried about his decision, but that he had assured her, “Nothing’s going to happen to me.” The decision had made sense to Caddell’s son Mark, who had idolized Bales since he was a toddler.

He has to join, Caddell recalled her son saying. “He takes care of everybody.”

INTRODUCTION TO WARFARE

After basic training, Bales was assigned to what was then known as Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, which would become the Army’s Western deployment hub for the wars. For the next 11 years, he would spend his career with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment in a Stryker brigade.

In 2002, the criminal assault occurred in a Tacoma-area hotel room, but he paid his fine and completed court-mandated anger management counseling, court records show.

Not long after, he married Karilyn Primeau, a woman he had met online, his lawyer said, and they went on to have two children, a daughter named Quincy and a son named Bobby.

The 3rd Brigade deployed to northern Iraq from November 2003 until November 2004, a time when the country was quickly devolving into looting, insurgency and chaos. But it was Bales’ second tour, from June 2006 into September 2007, that was particularly eventful.

By then, Iraq was in the throes of sectarian civil war, and U.S. troops were dying at the rate of about 80 a month. David Hardt, a 3rd Brigade soldier who wrote a blog about the deployment, said that the enemy had almost always been invisible and that soldiers had grown bitterly frustrated at their inability to fight back.

“You sort of got used to seeing dead bodies, seeing things blow up in front of you,” said Hardt, who did not know Bales but was in Iraq at the same time. “We wanted to get insurgents, but it’s so rare that we succeeded.”

In one extraordinary battle in January 2007, however, Bales’ battalion encountered as many as 600 Shiite militia fighters while trying to recover a downed Apache helicopter in Najaf. In a pitched, two-day battle that included airstrikes, mortar exchanges and virtually trench warfare, the U.S. forces claimed to have killed 250 enemy fighters, while losing none of their own.

“The cool part about this was, World War II-style, you dug in,” Bales, then a team leader, was quoted saying in a recounting of the battle by the Fort Lewis newspaper. “You’re taking a shovel and digging as fast as you can.”

“I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day,” he added.

Somewhere during that deployment, Bales injured his foot, though his lawyer said he did not know how. The Army has declined to provide details about the sergeant’s record.

But the injury did not seem significant enough to remove him from Iraq, and he seems to have finished the tour, which was extended to 15 months from 12 to help in what became known as the surge.

Hardt said most soldiers he knew were angry about the extension because they were exhausted by the continuous fighting and threats of roadside bombs. But if Bales was upset, he did not seem to complain. When he returned to the Tacoma area, he was limping, neighbors said, but also working hard to rehabilitate his foot because he wanted to return to full duty.

“He was a gung-ho Army guy,” said Tim Burgess, 59, a retired trucker and warehouse worker who lived next door to Bales at the time. “He still wanted to see action even though he had been wounded.”

Neighbors remembered his wife as an avid bicyclist but not particularly sociable. Records show she worked as a project manager at now-defunct Washington Mutual, then became an associate technical project manager at Amaxra, a business communications company in Redmond.

Bales was home for nearly two years after his second deployment. Karilyn Bales, an avid blogger, cheerfully recounted baking cookies, reading books and visiting her parents in Bellingham with their daughter.

By August 2009, he was gone again.

It was a quieter tour, with more nation building than combat. In a Facebook exchange with a childhood friend, Steven Berling, Bales called the deployment “boring” and “pretty dumb,” then lamented the lack of fighting.

“Giving money to Hagji instead of bullets just don’t seem right,” he wrote, apparently misspelling Hajji, a term used by soldiers, often pejoratively, in referring to Arab people.

FINANCIAL AND CAREER SETBACKS

About the time Bales was preparing to deploy in 2009, the Baleses were having financial problems, records show.

Early in their relationship, they had lived in a house in the city of Auburn, between Seattle and Tacoma, that Karilyn Bales had owned before they were together. According to records, the couple received a notice of a trustee sale in mid-2009.

The couple, who had moved out by then, had missed $17,000 in payments and owed a total of $195,000 to the bank.

A trustee auction was scheduled for October 2009, while Bales was in Iraq, but the auction was postponed three times and then called off in early 2010 for reasons that are unclear.

Robert Baggett, president of the neighborhood’s Riverpark Estates Homeowners Association, said the Baleses had stopped paying their annual association dues of about $120 at least two years ago. The house, which for a while was occupied by renters whose noise drew complaints from neighbors, has been vacant for about 18 months and is now filthy and in disrepair. “We are parking cars there to keep it looking like it is occupied so no homeless move in,” Baggett said.

The Baleses bought their two-story house in Lake Tapps, east of Tacoma, in 2005, records show. But just three days before the shootings in Afghanistan, Karilyn Bales told a real estate agent, Phillip Rodocker, that she wanted to sell the house because they were financially stretched. The house is listed for sale at $229,000, about $50,000 less than the family paid for it.

Asked about the family’s mortgage problems, Robert Bales’ lawyer, John Henry Browne, said, “There are no financial pressures on the family right now other than the normal ones that are experienced by the 99 percenters.”

Last March, Karilyn Bales wrote on her blog that her husband had not gotten a hoped-for promotion to sergeant first class. The promotion would have increased his pay by about $370 a month and made him eligible to be the senior noncommissioned officer for a platoon. (He was also paid an extra $400 a month during his deployments.) The promotion probably would have also given him some peace of mind about his Army career, which was nearing halfway to the 20 years needed for retirement with pay.

Though “sad and disappointed” by the news, Karilyn Bales said she was also relieved. “We can finally move on to the next phase of our lives,” she wrote.

THE FINAL DEPLOYMENT

That next phase, the Baleses hoped, would take them to Germany, Italy or Hawaii. But the Army did not move him from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Nor did it allow him to become a recruiter, though he was in training for the job. Instead, Robert Bales was told he would go with the 3rd Brigade to Afghanistan in December.

“He was not happy about it,” his lawyer, Browne, said, but he took his orders like a professional soldier.

Before deploying, he would have undergone physical exams, including on his foot, and a computer-based survey for traumatic brain injury intended to measure attention, memory and thinking ability. The survey is not well regarded among many specialists, but it remains the Army’s chief screening tool for traumatic brain injury. Bales was declared fit to deploy.

Little is known about his time in Afghanistan, other than that he and others in his battalion were assigned to work alongside Army special forces soldiers in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, a longtime hotbed of Taliban activity that has grown more secure in recent years. Bales would probably have provided security for the Green Berets while they carried out night raids, built relations with village leaders and organized local militias.

A Green Beret who has spent time in Panjwai in the past year said the combat outpost would have been relatively small, protected by dirt-filled containers known as Hesco barriers, with guard towers and perhaps a blimp with a high-powered camera capable of capturing images more than a mile away. It would have been difficult, but not impossible, for Bales to slip away at night unnoticed, as the Army says he did.

Supervision in the outpost might also have been more lax than at larger bases, which could explain the presence of alcohol. Bales might have even been among the more senior noncommissioned officers on his team. Special forces teams typically have 12, and sometimes fewer, members, and Bales’ unit might have been as small as a platoon of two dozen soldiers.

Many younger soldiers consider such assignments exciting and more fulfilling, though they are also potentially more dangerous. But Browne said Bales had considered the posting “grueling,” noting that the soldiers lived in metal cargo containers.

“It was very tough and rustic,” the lawyer said. 

About a week ago, Browne said, Bales saw a friend lose his leg to a buried mine. Soon after, according to Browne, he sent his wife a short message: “Hard day for the good guys,” it said.

About a day later, Army officials said, Bales walked out of the outpost and headed toward the nearby village.

Reporting was contributed by William Yardley and Serge F. Kovaleski from Tacoma, Wash.; Michael Cooper and Theo Emery from Norwood, Ohio; Isolde Raftery from Seattle; Lizette Alvarez from Miami; Eric Schmidt from Washington; and Jennifer Preston from New York.






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