U.S. Soldier Who ‘Snapped’ and Killed Sixteen Afghan Civilians I.D.’ed

By
The soldier (left) was identified as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in a 2011 article in High Desert Warrior, a military Web site — the article and photo have since been taken down. Photo: null/This photograph is protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. Licensing requests should be sent to photosales@nytimes.com.

Since last Sunday morning, the world (and the press) have been waiting impatiently to learn the identity of the U.S. soldier who walked out of a rural army base in Afghanistan and slaughtered sixteen unarmed civilians in two nearby villages, including nine children. Yesterday, the Pentagon finally complied. We now know the soldier in question to be staff sergeant Robert Bales, a 38-year-old father of two, who lived in the small town of Lake Trapps, Washington, just outside Tacoma and the Fort Lewis-McChord Army base where he'd been stationed for eleven years. The picture emerging is of a man that one neighbor describes as "the most loving, gentle father," who lived in an all-American suburban house with the Stars and Stripes out front and a grill and jacuzzi tub in the backyard, where he was often seen playing with his kids. Another neighbor told the AP that he was just "a good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time," while Bales's attorney says he was "in general mild-mannered." His likely defense, as one senior U.S. official told the New York Times on Thursday, is that "it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues — he just snapped."

Bales had, as it turns out, been drinking —  a breach of the military code of conduct — before he went on his rampage and was, his lawyer says, reeling from having witnessed a fellow soldier's leg being blown off in an explosion just the day before. Several new sources have claimed that Bales was facing pressure from his wife back home, who was unhappy that he'd been passed over for a promotion the year before and had been pulled into a fourth tour of duty. While Bales's attorney has not made direct mention of any marital issues, he has suggested that a PTSD defense is being seriously considered.

A 2009 interview that Bales gave to the Fort Lewis Northwest Guardian newspaper certainly seems to indicate a soldier who took his job seriously and understood the importance of helping and protecting "noncombatants." Here, he discusses a 2007 rescue and recovery mission of a downed Apache helicopter in Zarqa, Iraq:

I've never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day, for the simple fact that we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants and then afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us.

Except much of that zeal had dissipated even before Bales had left for Afghanistan. One neighbor who'd spoken with him pre-deployment says "he did not believe in the mission anymore." And Bales's lawyer told the AP that "he wasn't thrilled about going on another deployment. He was told he wasn't going back, and then he was told he was going." And it has also come out that he'd been arrested in 2002 for assaulting his then-girlfriend (not the same person as his now-wife) in a Tacoma hotel, for which he was forced to undergo anger-management counseling. He was also charged with a hit-and-run a few years later. (Both charges were eventually dismissed.)

While murder charges will likely be filed soon, it remains unclear where Bales will ultimately stand trial. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, facing public outrage, has called for the U.S. to hand Bales over, something the Pentagon has yet to explicitly rule out. However, for now, Bales is under heavy-duty lock and key at the at the U.S. military's maximum security prison at Fort Leavenworth, where he arrived late last night — the same facility where Bradley Manning, the Wikileaks soldier, is being held. He'd originally been smuggled out of the country to Kuwait, where he was kept until the Kuwaitis actually found out and, according to one senior U.S. official, "blew a gasket and wanted him out of there."