Staff Sgt. Robert Bales had no illusions about where he was heading in the hours after his fellow soldiers apprehended him amid suspicion that he had slaughtered Afghan civilians in two villages.
He wouldn’t answer questions about where he’d been after sneaking out of their combat outpost because “If I answer, you guys will have to testify,” soldiers remembered him saying that night last spring.
A comrade encouraged him to focus on his family, but Bales grew doubtful that he’d see his wife and two children again if the Army brought murder charges against him.
“They’re probably not going to let me see my wife and kids,” he told Sgt. 1st Class Derek King of the 7th Special Forces Group, King remembered.
Bales’ prediction unfolded in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Tuesday when Green Berets testified at the second day of a hearing that could lead to a death-penalty court-martial for the 39-year-old Stryker soldier from Lake Tapps. He’s accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians and wounding six more.
His reported remarks to his guards in the early morning of March 11 played into competing narratives about his state of mind during his fourth deployment with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Prosecutors sought to demonstrate that Bales’ remarks to his fellow soldiers showed that he understood the gravity of his alleged massacre. They stressed his apparent admissions to his guards.
For instance, King said Bales told him, “I guess four was too much.” Prosecutors say that Bales killed villagers in four homes.
Bales’ defense attorney, meanwhile, highlighted comments from veterans who considered Bales’ decision to leave his combat outpost by himself without his body armor to be an inherently crazy act. The combat veteran was found wearing a bloodied uniform and a sheet tied around his neck like a cape.
“Utter amazement,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lance Allard, describing his reaction when he learned that Bales was outside the wire by himself in the dead of night. Allard is a 24-year Army veteran and 7th Special Forces Group Green Beret who was the No. 2 commander at the combat outpost where Bales was serving.
Emma Scanlan, Bales’ defense attorney, reminded Allard that he once referred to Bales leaving the base by himself as “just plain stupid.” Scanlan also drew from Tuesday’s testimony of a junior soldier who referred to Bales as “bipolar” in his behavior.
“Sometimes he was in a really good mood, and sometimes he seemed kind of angry sometimes or easily annoyed,” Pfc. Derek Guinn said.
Soldiers who guarded Bales just after he returned to Village Stability Platform Belambay remembered him as seemingly resigned to his fate.
“It seemed as if the adrenaline had come down, and he was coming back to reality,” said King, who watched Bales for six hours while they waited for a helicopter to take him away to a larger NATO base.
Soldiers tried to be kind to him in those early hours. They had him take a shower and gather clothes for his flight out of Belambay. Bales joined conversations about sports.
King let Bales have access to his laptop when Bales said he wanted to store it in such a way that it wouldn’t be damaged easily. Bales took the machine and destroyed it, King said.
Bales apparently wanted his fellow soldiers to think well of him as they braced for a mob of Afghan civilians who would rush Belambay that day. He implied he was targeting “military-age males” who pinned down a patrol near Belambay for 30 minutes.
“You guys are going to thank me come June,” he reportedly told Sgt. 1st Class James Stillwell, referring to the traditional summertime Afghan fighting season.
Also Tuesday, a junior soldier testified that he and three others at the outpost speculated that a second sergeant helped Bales during the attack in the first village.
They based their speculation on reports from Afghan soldiers who said they saw two Americans walking into Belambay early March 11 and one American leaving before 3 a.m. Four junior U.S. soldiers approached Army criminal investigators with speculation that a sergeant who was close to Bales might have been involved.
They did not reveal direct evidence to support their claim in court, and The News Tribune is not naming him at this point because he has not been charged in connection with the killings.
The testimony contradicted reports in court Monday in which soldiers said the Afghans saw one American walking into the base, and one American walking out.Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/ military @TNTmilitary