Complicated and hardly the stuff of heroes, the life story of Robert Bales, the U.S. soldier alleged to have slaughtered 17 Afghan villagers, including women and children, is emerging from the recollections of military buddies, school friends, court records and victims he bilked of their life savings.
Staff Sergeant Bales will be charged with 17 counts of murder, assault and a string of other offences in the massacre, a U.S. official said. The charges signed against Sgt. Bales also include six counts of attempted murder and six counts of aggravated assault as well as dereliction of duty and other violations of military law, the official said on condition of anonymity because the charges had not been announced. The charges are to be read to Sgt. Bales on Friday.
Locked in solitary confinement in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., far the from Kandahar nightmare of shooting and stabbing and burning that may become the defining atrocity in what U.S. President Barack Obama called the “right” war in Afghanistan, Sergeant Bales remembers little of the drunken rampage, according to his lawyers.
But others remember Bob Bales in a range of roles, not all of them admirable.
Con man, patriot, life of the party, fugitive, sterling soldier, failed investor, good neighbour and high-school football star.
War criminal has yet to be determined but Sgt. Bales could face the death penalty if, as is expected, he is charged with pre-meditated murder.
Not since Lieutenant William Calley led his platoon on a fiery rampage in the infamous My Lai Massacre of March 16, 1968, in Vietnam has a rogue U.S. soldier so seriously undermined support for an already controversial war.
On Tuesday, General John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told a Congressional committee nothing had changed in terms of timeline or pace of the pullout but Afghan outrage over the latest atrocity and sagging American support at home may force a rethink.
“There is no part of our strategy which intends to stay in Afghanistan forever,” he said.
Twice wounded and on his first deployment to Afghanistan after three tours in Iraq, Sgt. Bales is portrayed by family and friends as a devoted patriot, a man who, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, joined the army and opted for the infantry, the toughest and most dangerous branch, out of love of country.
But by the time he enlisted, Sgt. Bales was 27 and had already dropped out of Ohio State University, moved to Florida and enjoyed a brief career as a financial adviser during the dotcom boom when he lived the high life in a fancy apartment overlooking the coast, before flaming out in a welter of fraud and recriminations.
“He robbed me of my life savings," Gary Liebschner of Carroll, Ohio told ABC News. Sgt. Bales still owes Mr. Liebschner about $1.3-million in damages, plus interest, for defrauding him. An arbitrator concluded he “engaged in fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, churning, unauthorized trading and unsuitable investments.”
By the time of the ruling, Sgt. Bales had disappeared into the military.
Court records show other brushes with the law. After a charge of assaulting his then-girlfriend he was ordered into an anger-management course. After a hit-and run accident, he ran bleeding in his uniform into the woods. He said he had fallen asleep at the wheel.
In Iraq, one of his officers, Captain Chris Alexander remembered him as “extremely professional,” adding there was “no job too menial or too dangerous, and he would always get it done, and get it done very well.”
Sgt. Bales was twice wounded, according to his lawyers; once when an explosion tore away part of his foot and another time when he suffered a head injury in a vehicle rollover. Oddly, there is no record of Purple Hearts, the routinely issued medal for soldiers wounded in combat zones, being awarded. Sgt. Bales’s repeated deployments typify the life of a U.S. infantry soldier in the last decade. He qualified as a sniper.
At home, there were troubles. The family was way behind in payments on two houses, both worth far less than it had paid for them, and one of which it abandoned. The other was put up for sale the day before the rampage.
And there were hints that his army career was stalled. When he failed to win promotion from Staff Sergeant to First Class Sergeant last year, his wife, Karilryn, wrote on her blog: “It is very disappointing after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends.” She added they were hoping for a posting to Hawaii or Germany. Instead, he was ordered to deploy to Afghanistan and the family was left outside Tacoma, Wash., saddled with growing debts. Two days before the killings, Sgt. Bales saw a soldier lose a leg in a roadside blast, according to some accounts.
Unless Sgt. Bales testifies at his court-martial, Americans may never hear from the man who may have changed the war.
Those closest to him seem stunned. “What has been reported is completely out of character of the man I know and admire. Please respect me when I cannot say I cannot shed any light on what happened that night, so please don't ask," Ms. Bales said in a statement. Earlier she described him as “a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services.”