Michael Blevins and his older sister Michelle Caddell have been friends with Robert Bales from back when their families lived across a leafy street in Norwood, Ohio. "My brother thought the sun rose and set on him," says Caddell of Bales, 38, whom she has known since he was a baby and who became "one of the most courteous people you are ever going to meet." They knew him as a football star, a class president, a fix-it guy helping his dad repair the lawnmower, a gentle soul who every day after school visited a neighborhood man who had cerebral palsy and was unable to speak. Bales, says Blevins, learned sign language so the two could communicate. Adds Caddell: "Kids were in awe of him."
They kept in touch with Bales as adults after he joined the Army. As recently as early March, he and Blevins were writing on Facebook. Bales's last note "was something like, 'I'm proud to be a papa and so excited about my little man's third birthday. Hope everyone's doing okay over there,'" referring to his wife and kids near Tacoma, Wash.
A few days later, on March 11, a U.S. Army staff sergeant based in the Panjwai district of Kandahar entered the homes of Afghan civilians, gunning down 16 people in their beds, including 9 children, and wounding several more. Villagers were terrified as bodies were piled up and set on fire. In Ohio, Blevins directed his sister to a website that identified the alleged shooter. Caddell, 48, recalls thinking, "'Funny, he's got the same name as Bobby.'" Her brain could not accept that it was not another Robert Bales. "I watched it again and again, and I said, 'No, that's not my Bobby. I can't fathom how that baby became this man.'" A week later Bales's wife, Karilyn, 38, issued a statement: "My family ... are all profoundly sad. We extend our condolences to all the people of the Panjwai District.... I too want to know what happened. I want to know how this could be."
The question of what happened to Robert Bales-and who he really is-goes to the heart of an investigation that began when Bales reportedly returned to base and surrendered his weapon, which was wrapped in an Afghan shawl. His Seattle-based lawyer John Henry Browne, who met with him March 19 at a Fort Leavenworth, Kans., prison, says his client recalls "very little" of the event.
Amid the speculation that Bales was suffering mental trauma, some feel "there is no excuse for this," says former Army First Sergeant Troy Steward, who writes a blog, bouhammer.com, about the Afghan war. "It can be PTSD, traumatic brain injury, whatever. Lots of guys and gals in uniform encounter the same issues, and they're not abandoning their conscience and gunning down innocent civilians."
Bales's personal and professional resume sketches a life of both achievement and trouble. By several accounts Bales, a sniper, was a good soldier during his three tours in Iraq, where he is said to have saved lives by wounding an enemy combatant aiming a rocket-propelled grenade at his unit. He had been wounded twice in Iraq and in 2010 may have sustained a mild traumatic brain injury after a Humvee he was in flipped over. His December 2011 orders to Afghanistan were both unexpected and deeply unwelcome. Says Browne: "The family was counting on him not being redeployed.... There has been a big problem with soldiers who have been previously deployed with concussive head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder." (Bales hasn't been diagnosed with PTSD, but his base, Washington's Lewis-McChord, has had cases of inaccurate diagnoses, which may have sent some with PTSD back into combat; see box.)
Those assigned to piece together the puzzle, meanwhile, are starting from scratch. "Investigators are looking at a lot of things: finances, home life, medical issues. These are standard," says an intelligence officer familiar with the case, which he calls unprecedented. "There is nothing like this. Vietnam had the My Lai massacres: In that incident the defendants said they were following orders. In Abu Ghraib we had a combination of factors that went up the chain of command. This case stands alone."
Is it possible that, earning $68,000 a year, Bales was feeling financial pressure half a world a way while Kari, a manager at a business-communications firm, was struggling to raise Quincy, 4, and Bobby, 3. Just days before the shooting, she had put the family's modest two-story home on the market. (She and the kids have been moved to Joint Base Lewis-McChord for security reasons.) Were there marital problems? Browne describes his client as "happily married," and a blog that Kari kept suggests a couple who bore up through tough times (see box).
But Bales, it is emerging, has had troubles beyond ordinary life stresses. In 2002 he was charged with assaulting his then girlfriend and ordered to undergo anger-management counseling. In 2008 he was briefly detained after fleeing a hit-and-run. And in 2003 he and codefendants were ordered in an arbitration ruling to pay more than $1.2 million after an Ohio couple had accused them of fraud.
Besides his finances, health and home life, the investigation will consider evidence from the shooting itself, which may offer clues to the manner in which Bales broke down. "Shot patterns will tell a lot: Do they go up from the extremities? That's blind rampage. Or are they in a neat pattern to the head? If so, he took the trouble to aim," says the intelligence officer. As a sniper, he adds, "Bales is trained to wait for his shot and quietly blend back into his surroundings. But what did he [allegedly] do? He went contrary to his strongest skill set: He burst into the open, fired up close, stayed at the scene." It is such incomprehensible behavior that no reasonable theory is being overlooked, from brain poisoning from eating raw goat meat or a bad reaction to malaria pills.
Friends like Caddell insist, "He comes from a wonderful family." The youngest of five boys of Bernice and Garfield Bales, a General Electric employee, Robert majored in economics at Ohio State but left before graduation to start a Florida investment firm. After 9/11, he joined the Army. Though he is not, as Browne has said, "highly decorated," Bales earned several honors, including six Army Commendation Medals. After a 2007 battle in the Iraq city of Najaf, in which 250 enemy fighters died, Bales told a military training-college interviewer, "I've never been more proud to be a part of this unit.... We discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants and ... helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us ... that's the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy."
When did Bales, who could face the death penalty or life without parole if a U.S. military court finds him guilty, lose sight of that difference? "Everyone is reading tea leaves and looking for the magic answer," says the intelligence officer. "We don't have it."
- Champ Clark/Tacoma,
- Howard Breuer/Los Angeles,
- Susan Keating/Washington/D.C..