Afghan field hospital kept five of Robert Bales' victims alive as rumors of a massacre surfaced
Maj. Travis Hawks could not think about who shot the five Afghan civilians when they showed up at his field hospital, even as rumors swirled that it was an American soldier who attacked them in their own homes.
Hawks was too busy trying to keep them alive.
His patients included a young girl with a bullet wound that ripped open her skull and a man with a hole in his neck who kept praying and chanting as soldiers worked.
The patients were the first victims of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in the early hours of March 11, 2012. The Tacoma-area infantryman attacked them in the village of Alkozai, where he murdered four people and wounded the five who made their way to Hawks at a large U.S. forward base called Zangabad.
“They said (the shooter) was an American,” Hawks later told an Army investigator. “At that time, we were more focused on treating their injuries so further questioning was not done.”
That same night, Bales would hit a second village, Najiban, where the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier killed 12 more people.
Hawks’ reports are included in an Army investigation into Bales’ killings that The News Tribune obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
All five of the victims who received treatment at Zangabad survived the day. Three of them testified at JBLM last August in front of an Army jury that sentenced Bales to life in prison without a chance for parole.
“You bastard,” Haji Mohammed Naim said to Bales on the witness stand. “What have I done to you that you come to me and shoot me?”
The first reports out of the hospital at Zangabad reflect a confusing scene in which soldiers made quick decisions to care for the wounded while piecing together information about how they were hurt.
They arrived about 3:30 a.m. at the base with help from Faizullah, one of Naim’s sons who was not shot by Bales. Faizullah loaded the victims in a car and ferried them to Zangabad because he knew U.S. medical personnel had cared for Afghans with complex wounds in the past.
“The house was full of blood and bodies,” Faizullah testified last year, remembering the scene at his father’s home.
Hawks and a captain worked down the line, triaging patients based on the severity of their wounds.
The first they saw was a young girl named Zardana. She was unconscious and bleeding from her head.
“There were pieces of her skull and brain tissue stuck to her scalp and her wound was briskly bleeding,” the captain wrote.
He and Hawks classified the girl as “expectant,” meaning they chose to work on other patients first because they believed she would die.
Naim came next with a “massive penetrating wound to the left side of the neck and jaw.” He “was screaming, lying on one of the trauma tables.”
A third patient arrived —another girl, named Parmina. She had wounds to her chest, groin and buttocks. She would not allow U.S. soldiers to take off her pants to treat her wounds.
They did what they could, bandaging her and keeping her stable.
Two boys had seemingly less serious wounds.
Rafiullah, who was Zardana’s 14-year-old brother, had a deep wound across his left thigh.
Sadiquallah, about 13, showed a wound to his ear. It did not appear life threatening.
With four seemingly stable patients ready for medical evacuations, the doctors returned their attention to Zardana.
She had not died.
They tried to intubate to give her an airway. They failed, and tried once more until they managed the procedure.
The doctors bandaged the girl’s head wound, and she, too, was ready for the morning’s first medical evacuation.
In the background, a civilian law enforcement officer at Zangabad started gathering evidence.
Word circulated that a soldier was missing from a nearby combat outpost named Village Stability Platform Belambay. The missing man was Bales, gone for his second attack of the night, though soldiers at Zangabad did not know it yet.
A debate raged: Could a single U.S. soldier have shot all these hospitalized Afghans?
An interpreter working for American forces at Zangabad would not believe it.
“It was impossible that the Americans would do this because they never conduct operations using just one man,” the interpreter insisted to the investigating officer.
Yet Rafiullah, the most coherent victim, told the officer that an American shot him and his sister. He saw a single gunman with American gear firing a weapon in Alkozai, he said.
The medical evacuation proceeded. One helicopter took Naim and the two girls to the large NATO hospital at Kandahar Air Field.
By the time the second arrived for Rafiullah and Sadiquallah, soldiers began to believe the reports that one of their own had carried out a massacre.
A private first class who helped the doctors that night heard the news from Faizullah through one of the Army interpreters.
“I didn’t know what happened,” the private told Faizullah. “I apologized and basically said … my job was to fix the people that got hurt and I was sorry for what happened.”