Months before he committed an inexplicable massacre, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales showed a split personality to his fellow soldiers at a small outpost in Southern Afghanistan.
As far as soldiers who outranked him were concerned, the Tacoma-area soldier was the “even keeled” combat veteran whom leaders could trust.
“Nothing would have led me to believe he was capable of doing the thing that he did,” a higher-ranking Special Forces soldier later told military police.
But the junior soldiers who took orders from Bales saw a different side to the four-time combat veteran from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
They called him “bipolar,” “crazy” and “paranoid” – the “control freak” who fixated on lights in the distance and aired his marital problems to much younger men.
If anyone was going to break, they figured it would be Bales.
“I was shocked (after hearing about the massacre),” a private first class told Army police, “but not as surprised as I would be if it were anyone else.”
Their observations are contained in a 1,500-page investigation into Bales’ single-handed killing spree that was obtained by The News Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act from the Army Criminal Investigation Command.
A year ago, Bales admitted to committing the most heinous war crimes of the Afghanistan war. He twice slipped out of a combat outpost and murdered 16 unarmed Afghan civilians – most of them women and children – on a single night in March 2012. He wounded six others. He is serving a life sentence in a military prison without the possibility of parole.
Bales’ case received worldwide media attention, but much remains unknown about how the soldier changed from a well-regarded Iraq combat veteran with a bright future in the Army into a “paranoid” soldier who targeted women and children in their own homes.
He never could explain his actions, even as he sought mercy from an Army jury.
“I don’t have the words to tell how much I wish I could take it back,” said Bales, a married father of two who lived in Lake Tapps and spent his entire Army career with JBLM’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
The documents released to The News Tribune show that Bales was a volatile soldier at the outpost long before he “jumped off the deep end and never came back,” as one of his commanders put it.
He bullied junior soldiers, wallowed in personal problems and beat up an Afghan civilian who was supplying his base.
“One day he’s happy and outgoing and the next day he’s mad about every little thing,” a private first class told investigators.
He also bragged about taking steroids he received from a Green Beret. Soldiers said they saw him drunk on two separate occasions at the base before the night of the killings.
On the night he slaughtered unarmed civilians at point-blank range, Bales watched a Denzel Washington movie and downed Jack Daniels liquor with two soldiers he considered friends. One of them thought Bales was kidding when he talked of killing young Afghan men by himself.
“Nobody was that crazy,” a private first class said.
Described in sharp contrasts
The trouble was, Bales, then 38, did not show that face to officers or senior enlisted soldiers who might have been able to recognize signs of his distress and get him off the battlefield.
Witness statements show that neither the leadership from his JBLM Stryker battalion nor the Green Berets from the 7th Special Forces Group who ran the combat outpost saw signs of Bales’ unraveling.
“He seemed pretty even keeled to be honest. That is why I’m (kind of) blown away by this,” Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lance Allard, the second highest-ranking soldier at the outpost, told Army police just after the killings.
Point by point, senior enlisted soldiers described Bales in sharp contrast to how privates, specialists and sergeants viewed him.
- Senior enlisted soldiers said Bales followed orders well and helped them carry out their goals; junior soldiers said he did not like being told what to do.
- A high-ranking noncommissioned officer said Bales separated his personal life from his professional responsibilities; at least 10 troops at Bales’ rank or below him said he openly disparaged his wife to them.
- Bales’ leaders thought he had good relationships with Afghans and respect for their culture. Several troops who answered to Bales considered him “racist” because they heard him insult Afghans as members of an inferior culture. They saw Bales pummel an Afghan contractor in February 2012 after the man accidentally struck Bales with a box of supplies at the base.
His habit of showing different personalities to different audiences continued even after the massacre, when he walked back to Village Stability Platform Belambay wearing blood-soaked pants in the morning hours of March 11, 2012 to find his teammates waiting to arrest him.
To senior soldiers, Bales looked apologetic. He insisted he thought he was doing the right thing that night.
“I didn’t mean to let you guys down,” he told Capt. Dan Fields, the highest-ranking officer at the outpost.
But away from commanders, Bales accused a sergeant of “ratting him out” and taunted some of the junior soldiers charged with guarding him.
“What, are you too pussy to look at me?” he demanded of a private first class who would not speak to Bales after learning that Bales had killed women and children.
Later, an Air Force weather specialist had to watch Bales.
“Soooo weather guy, what’s the weather going to do. Is it going to rain?” Bales teased him, jokingly complaining that he should be guarded by one of the Special Forces soldiers at the base.
Unclear mental health history
The released documents do not give definitive answers to questions about Bales’ mental health because the Army withheld his official medical records. They do, however, show that Bales’ wife raised concerns about his behavior after his second of three Iraq deployments.
Kari Bales urged her husband “to talk to someone” in 2008, according to a summary of his records from Madigan Army Medical Center included in the Army investigation.
That year, Bales had just returned from a 15-month tour with the JBLM Stryker brigade. He came home experiencing troubles with irritability, anger, a low libido and trouble concentrating.
Bales at his sentencing admitted that he did not seek psychiatric help until 2010, after his third Iraq deployment. He gave up rather than commit himself to therapy.
The Army classified its full toxicology report on Bales, but a summary shows that the only illicit substance in his bloodstream after the killings was a steroid known as stanozolol.
He received the pills from a 7th Special Forces Group soldier after they talked about workouts one day. The pills could have affected his mood and made him increasingly short-tempered.
Investigators also seized a mix of pain and sleeping pills from Bales’ living quarters. His unit’s medic refused to give him more than five days worth of Benadryl because Bales was known to pop all of the pills at once, the medic said.
The documents confirm that Bales’ took regular psychiatric assessments before and after his combat missions. They included a post-deployment mental health checkup in 2010. He took another assessment in June 2012 as his brigade prepared to leave for its last tour, this time to Afghanistan. The Army withheld the results of those assessments from the report it released to The News Tribune.
Pre-deployment screenings rarely stop a soldier from heading overseas to war, according to data from Madigan Army Medical Center. Just 250 of the more than 72,000 surveys the hospital distributed between 2006 and 2010 led to soldiers being taken off their deployments.
Even if a red flag surfaces during a screening, a soldier could make an agreement with his leadership team to go on a deployment. A soldier might want to go for financial reasons, or to support the soldiers in his or her unit, Madigan commanders told The News Tribune last year.
Bales in the summer of 2012 would have felt both of those pressures when he learned his brigade had to prepare for a then-unexpected trip to Afghanistan.
Back then, Bales struggled to hold on to two South Sound properties that were slipping into foreclosure. He also badly wanted to earn a promotion to sergeant first class, a position that would have increased his pay and given him responsibility for the training and welfare of about 40 infantrymen, according to statements from his fellow soldiers.
Deploying to Afghanistan would give him additional combat pay and help him with the promotion by demonstrating his commitment to leading young soldiers in combat.
Bales was “always trying to come out on top and being the best,” a specialist from his Stryker platoon told Army police. “He wanted to be that guy that when something was needed he was able to provide it.”
'Keep an eye on this guy'
The 700 or so soldiers in his Stryker battalion were chosen for an especially difficult job that year.
Instead of serving together in one geographic area under familiar commanders, the battalion members were split up all over Afghanistan to support Special Operations Forces teams in the thick of fighting.
Special Operations leaders told the battalion they wanted a top-notch infantry leader at VSP Belambay. The outpost sat in the heart of Kandahar Province’s violent Panjwai District.
Commanders from the JBLM infantry battalion thought they had the right guy in Bales, they told Army investigators. He would be responsible for leading about a dozen JBLM soldiers at the outpost while reporting directly to elite Special Forces soldiers.
Bales was “their best,” an officer and first sergeant from the infantry battalion told Army police.
Junior soldiers got a different read on Bales almost as soon his team arrived in Panjwai.
“We need to keep an eye on this guy,” a bomb technician remembered thinking when he met Bales.
That soldier was ranked as a specialist – below Bales – and had been in Afghanistan five months when he met the JBLM team. To him, Bales seemed “tired of deploying.”
Bales told the soldier – a stranger to him before the deployment – that he “no longer loved his wife.”
That remark could be written off, if not for the sheer number of soldiers who heard Bales complain about his wife’s appearance or her spending habits.
“He was a jackass to his wife and called her names all the time,” a private first class who reported to Bales told Army police.
Meantime, Bales and his soldiers were operating in a dangerous place. A Navy bomb technician said he went on about 15 patrols with Bales in early 2012. Soldiers took enemy fire on eight or nine occasions.
They also had to watch their backs for an emerging threat in the war that year: Afghan allies turning their weapons on their U.S. trainers. That method of attack picked up after U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Field accidentally torched Islamic holy books taken from a detainee prison.
A Special Forces soldier handed Bales a 9-millimeter pistol to protect himself from an insider attack. The two of them vented about wanting to be more aggressive with the enemy.
“We both agreed that it seemed like we’re fighting with both of our hands tied behind our back” because of restrictions on when U.S. soldiers could use force against Afghans, the soldier told investigators.
Bales sought to keep his team ready for the fight. Higher-ranking Green Berets noticed he cared for his soldiers and seemed to prepare them well.
“He was very proactive and seemed to be in control of any situation or task that was assigned to him. He seemed to have a good head on his shoulders and was very experienced and very knowledgeable,” Fields told Army police.
Lights in the distance
Bales’ concerns about security peaked in early March 2012 when a patrol hit a mine, injuring five soldiers. A Navy bomb technician responded to the blast and lost a leg to a second mine at the scene.
Bales and the bomb technician had a good relationship, the sailor told military police. They called each other friends.
Bales wanted to strike back, soldiers remembered, but the Special Forces team was undermanned while it waited for reinforcements.
“The stress got to him and he felt he had to do something about the IED incident a couple of days prior,” a Green Beret told Army police.
Bales stewed for the next few days, venting about the restrictions on using force, complaining about Kari’s spending habits and dwelling on the promotion he wanted.
“I noticed him to become more agitated” in the week before the killings, a sergeant told Army police.
The night before the slaughter, Bales shared a guard shift with a junior soldier. Bales seemed to fixate on lights moving in the distance, connecting them to an attack he once experienced in Iraq.
“Sorry, I’m being paranoid,” Bales told the junior soldier who accompanied him in the guard tower.
It was nothing out of the ordinary, the private first class later told military police.
“Him being paranoid was normal, too,” the junior soldier said.