Bales takes stand at sentencing trial, apologizes for Afghan killings, disgracing Army

Adam Ashton

11:45 A.M. UPDATE: In his first remarks in court, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales could not apologize enough for the lives he ruined on the night he slipped out of his combat outpost in Kandahar province and slaughtered 16 civilians in their homes.

He said he let his family down. He disgraced the Army, he said. And he robbed innocent people of their families.

"I don’t have the words to tell them how much I wish I could take it back,” he said this morning in an unsworn statement on the third day of his sentencing trial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Bales, 40, will receive a life sentence for his slaughter in Kandahar’s Panjwai district on March 11, 2012. He spoke to convince a six-member military jury that he deserves a chance for parole one day.

Bales carefully chose his words. He paused and closed his eyes frequently as he thought about what he wanted to say in his answers to defense attorney Emma Scanlan’s questions.

His voice deepened and he appeared to cry when he talk about how the killings disgraced the soldiers he served with for a decade in Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. The battalion's motto is "Patriot."

"I love the Army. I stood next to some really great guys, some real heroes, call it Patriot Brotherhood. I can’t say I’m sorry to those guys enough, and all that doesn’t take away from all the people I killed,” he said.

His remarks brought tears to the eyes of his family members who have sat behind him in court this week. His wife, Kari, sobbed. So did his in-laws and brothers. He and Kari have two children, ages 3 and 6.

“My wife, family, mom, kids, I’m sorry I disgraced you. I’m sorry I let you down,” he said.

Bales’ attorneys are not calling any mental health experts to speak on behalf of the soldier from Ohio. Their decision was surprising because they have told reporters for the past 17 months that Bales suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and the after-effects of traumatic brain injuries he experienced during his three tours of duty in Iraq.

The absence of those behavioral health doctors in court suggests the defense team decided they had little to gain discussing Bales’ health records.

Scanlan, however, led Bales to describe how his experiences in combat affected his health and his relationships.

He felt angry for no reason after his second deployment to Iraq in 2006-07.It was a violent, 15-month tour in which soldiers feared increasingly deadly enemy bombs.

Once home, Bales would be furious doing the dishes, he said.

He didn’t want anyone to know he was distressed, so he’d hide gin around the house and pop sleeping pills in such a way that his wife didn’t notice.

"I was just trying to hide," he said.

Without help, his frustrations magnified.

“I was mad at myself for being mad,” he said. “You couldn’t just flush it and start over. I couldn’t just flush it and start over.”

After his third tour in Iraq, Bales sought counseling at Madigan Army Medical Center. He went for about a month and a half before he quit. Looking back, he said he should have continued seeking therapy and been more open about it his feelings with his family and peers.

“I think I was a coward for stopping,” he said.

His unit’s last deployment to Afghanistan surprised Bales and other soldiers. They received late confirmation that they were deploying in August 2011, three months before they were scheduled to leave.

Bales said he sought a different assignment in a stateside recruiting battalion. He wanted more time with his wife and kids, noting that he had been deployed for 37 months over the previous eight years.

However, it was too late for him to transfer outside of a deploying unit. He put on a stoic face for the soldiers in his platoon.

“I kind of hid behind a mask. I wouldn’t want to go to combat with a leader who didn’t want to go combat,” he said, explaining his thinking at the time.

Bales said the anger that troubled him at home swelled in Afghanistan. His unit took on a new assignment supporting a Special Forces team at a small base called Village Stability Platform Belambay. He worried constantly about his safety, about protecting soldiers and about learning to work with Green Berets who carried themselves differently than conventional infantrymen like Bales.

Bales responded to the pressure by flying off the handle when soldiers made small mistakes. He didn’t want to think he’d put some in danger by letting up for a second.

“It escalated from not just fear, but the fear of ‘am I doing everything I can do?’” he said.

Bales also started taking steroids. He drank alcohol at times in the seemingly looser standards that prevailed at the Special Forces outpost.

"Stupid," he said. "I’m sorry. It was disgraceful."

Bales did not talk about the massacre. Scanlan asked him what he wanted to say about the villagers he killed. Bales looked down, closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “If I could bring back their families, I would in a heartbeat. I can’t comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids. I know I murdered their families.”

10:23 A.M. UPDATE: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will not put any witnesses to testify about his mental health. His attorneys will call him this morning as their final witness.

He is expected to give an unsworn statement that prosecutors cannot challenge.

9:45 A.M. REPORT: As a soldier, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales showed an upbeat, can-do attitude that impressed his leaders on three tours to Iraq and intense training periods in between missions, several high-ranking infantrymen testified in court today.

That positive record at home and at war was one of the reasons that Maj. Brent Clemmer could not believe the news when he learned that Bales had slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians and wounded six more on the soldier’s fourth deployment to Iraq.

“I walked myself into my office, poured myself a glass of scotch and cried,” said Clemmer, who commanded Bales’ infantry company on their second tour in Iraq.

Clemmer is one of several soldiers testifying on Bales’ behalf this morning on third day of his sentencing trial. Bales has pleaded guilty to the March 11, 2012 massacre in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, but is trying to earn a chance at parole one day.

His former leaders from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment are describing the 40-year-old father of two as an effective soldier they trusted to lead young men going to war.

Bales "really cared about his guys,” said Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Farris. “He wasn’t just there doing his job."

Those descriptions counter Army prosecutors’ characterization of Bales’ behavior on his last tour to Afghanistan. On that mission, his fourth with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, Bales moped about being passed over for a promotion, beat up an Afghan man supplying his base, took steroids and drank alcohol in the weeks before he “snapped” and carried out his solitary massacre in two villages.

Soldiers testifying today are giving the first accounts of combat incidents Bales experience. Farris said he was hit by improvised explosive devices while driving with Bales in Stryker vehicles on missions around the Iraqi city of Mosul. He said the explosions “rung my bell.”

Their 15-month tour to Iraq in 2006-07 was an exceptionally violent one for the Stryker soldiers, with regular enemy contact and increasingly lethal enemy bombs. Farris remembered collecting badly mangled corpses of American military service members with Bales, and constantly guarding against buried mines that could kill an entire squad of soldiers.

Farris said Bales played an important role in safely bringing home the members of their platoon on that tour.

"All of us together working as a team,” Farris said. “That’s a big reason we were all able to come back in one piece from that tour."

Clemmer led Bales’ company on a 24-hour mission in southern Iraq aimed at retrieving a downed Apache helicopter. They unexpectedly found hundreds of entrenched enemy fighters in a protected compound with women and children inside.

The infantry company killed more than 250 fighters without losing one of its men. They took hundreds of prisoners, too. Clemmer painted a haunting picture of the battle. He later nominated Bales for a medal for his actions there.

“What stuck with me to this day was dead people with no marks on them, their eyes open and their eyes covered with dust,” Clemmer said.

Earlier today, childhood friend and former NFL player Marc Edwards testified about his experiences growing up with Bales and playing football on their high school team.

Edwards was younger than Bales, and took his position as the team’s starting linebacker. Edwards remembered Bales graciously taking the younger player under his wing to make the team better.

“From that point on, we became the best of friends,” Edwards said.

Edwards flashed the Super Bowl ring he received from his season with the New England Patriots when defense attorney John Henry Browne asked about it. He hugged members of Bales’ family and took a seat next to the soldier’s mother when he finished testifying.

Adam Ashton
Tacoma News Tribune