Chatting with Kari Bales over coffee and pastries in the kitchen of her attorney's Seattle home, it is hard to discern a life turned upside down. There is talk of the traffic, her day off from the Web-design firm where she is a project manager and of daughter Quincy, 5, and son Bobby, 2, who are in day care. She is upbeat and personable, quick with a smile. Yet it has been only four months since Kari was thrust into horrifying circumstances. On the morning of March 11, she learned that a staff sergeant from her husband's Army unit was being held in connection with the brutal killings of 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children. By afternoon she was visited by four Army staff, among them a chaplain, who told her that her husband, Robert Bales, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was in custody. And by evening, before the alleged shooter's name went public, Kari and her kids had been quietly moved onto nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, Wash., for safety.
"It's surreal; that's the only way to describe it," says Kari, 38, speaking exclusively with PEOPLE. "It's overwhelming. I have to take every day as it comes, sometimes every hour." Bob Bales, 39, is in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kans. The charges against him are gruesome: He is accused of entering homes in the Panjwai district of Kandahar, shooting sleeping families in their beds, stacking bodies and torching them. In addition to the 16 dead, there were a half dozen wounded, some of whom may give testimony. If convicted, Bales could face the death penalty.
To his wife, what the government alleges "makes no sense." But even though she feels "absolutely horrible about all the lives that were lost" and tries to understand why her husband is the only suspect, she says she has never asked him what happened that night. One reason is that she worries phone calls could be recorded or prison visiting rooms bugged. Another is this: her conviction that "my husband didn't do that" and that the Bob Bales she knows would never have carried out these killings. "I don't know what happened," she says. "And I don't believe what's out there."
While one possible defense (see box below) may include discussion of a brain injury Bob suffered in Iraq when a vehicle he was in flipped or of treatment he may have received for post-traumatic stress disorder, Kari claims she knows little about either his injury or PTSD. "I didn't know the symptoms, other than from the movie Born on the Fourth of July. I didn't think of it in relation to Bob." Adds Kari's sister Stephanie Tandberg, in a separate conversation: "This is an unbelievable situation. But Kari married Bob. Her vows were spoken. And she will follow those vows to the end."
The couple's first reunion since the killings came a month after his transfer to Fort Leavenworth. There Kari says she found Bob looking reasonably well, dressed in prison-issue khakis and a button-down shirt. "We can only hug when we first see each other, then hug when we leave," she explains. His mood was "pretty positive" as they sat side by side and talked: about Bobby learning to use the potty, about Bob leaving Afghanistan early. "For him, it is a relief to no longer be in harm's way."
She went back in May with their kids. "They ran to him; you could see him tear up," she says. "You could see huge relief and love-I'm the luckiest person to have witnessed it. He was still Daddy." Kari has told the kids only that Daddy "has a special thing he's doing."
She is trying to keep life normal for them and says the Army has been "very helpful." Neighbors offer to take on chores, and strangers write letters of support. But money is a concern, and to help pay for the lawyers, Kari has set up a Sgt. Robert Bales legal-defense fund online (helpsgtbales.com).
Bob is helping the family as best as he is able from behind bars; his paychecks still go to Kari. He sent his kids a drawing of the outline of his hand, and "every time they read the letter, they give it a high-five." This is more in line with the man whom Kari knows: "Caring, romantic. This Mother's Day he sent me chocolate-covered strawberries even though he was in prison. He's a great dad. He changed poopie diapers. He was my partner."
The partnership began in August 2003, when the couple met at a nightclub near Tacoma . "He was a macho man, a football player in college, and he had that persona, but he also had a sensitive side, very intelligent." They dated briefly before he was deployed to Iraq that October. (Kari insists he enlisted in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks, not because of economic setbacks from a financial-services business, as has been reported.) "We started a pen-pal relationship-it was a great way to get to know each other." They wed at a Seattle courthouse in 2005, and over six years they endured three additional deployments. A trained sniper, Bob earned honors for saving soldiers in Iraq, and Kari says he was devoted to the U.S. mission there, particularly as it could help Iraqi children. "He loved the kids over there. One time I sent him a teddy bear and Bob gave it to a little Iraqi girl. She loved it. His belief was that they were reaching the next generation, and that things [between the two countries] could get better." But there were also disappointments: He missed the birth of his daughter and the death of his father. When he came up for promotion in 2011, he was passed over, and financial concerns caused them to put their modest two-story house on the market. Despite the hurdles, Kari says that as a couple they stayed strong. When he was home, Bob rarely spoke about war. "As far as his personality," says Kari, "I didn't see a lot of change." They would go camping or take family road trips. "We have great conversations about life," she says wistfully. "We weren't perfect-I'm stubborn and he's stubborn-but we are such good friends."
They celebrated their seventh anniversary on March 3, during Bob's fourth deployment. "This last one made me really mad," admits Kari. "I thought we were done. Bob missed Quincy growing up and didn't want to miss out on his son. He didn't want to be away from his family again, but he knew he had to go." He was supposed to get out in December and start a new life. "He was hoping to be a recruiter and wanted to live in Florida."
They still talk about their future, whatever it may hold. "I love him very much," says Kari. "All I want is him home." At their last visit, she says, "we asked, 'Why is this happening to us? When are we going to be together?' That*s the hardest part. When are we going to be together again?"
It isn't all that weighs on her. She says she keeps busy with her job and her young kids. But she still often thinks about the people in Afghanistan, the parents who buried children. "I think about it a lot, especially when I look at my own children," says Kari with tears in her eyes. "I feel terrible beyond words that children and other people died. It's awful. My heart goes out to all their families. I want to know who did that. I know my husband didn't do that. That's not Bob."