At home, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was the doting dad who spoiled his two kids and patiently cared for his loved ones. “There’s no better father I’ve seen,” his brother said in court Wednesday.
On his last deployment to Afghanistan, Bales became the man who denied those pleasures to other fathers when he indiscriminately murdered their children in a nighttime killing spree last year.
“If someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastating it would be,” Haji Mohammed Wazir, an Afghan man who lost six of his seven children to Bales’ rampage, said in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Wednesday. “I lost my entire family.”
Both portraits of fatherhood emerged in court on the second day of a sentencing trial for Bales, the Stryker Brigade soldier who has pleaded guilty to murdering 16 civilians on March 11, 2012, in two villages near his combat outpost in Kandahar province.
He faces a mandatory life sentence but is trying to convince a six-member Army jury that he deserves a chance for parole one day.
For the first time, defense attorneys brought forward witnesses to counter the Army’s depiction of Bales as a cold-blooded killer who resented Afghans and did not want to return home to his wife and kids. The trial is expected to resume Thursday with more defense witnesses, including mental health experts.
Bales, 39, will testify before the end of the trial in an unsworn statement that cannot be contested by prosecutors, his defense attorney said Wednesday. Lawyer John Henry Browne said the soldier would apologize “and more.”
Bales’ brother, William Bales, and a family friend, Robert Durham, described the soldier as a considerate young man growing up in an Ohio family of five brothers. He participated in school activities and made time to care for a developmentally disabled boy throughout his youth.
He was known as “Good Time Bobby” until he joined the Army in 2001. From there, William Bales said, his brother quickly matured and began his own family a few years later.
“I know that when the Twin Towers came down, that had an effect,” William Bales said, suggesting that the 2001 terrorist attacks motivated his youngest brother to join the military.
William Bales laughingly told a story about the soldier waking up early to make chocolate chip pancakes for his children. He let his son eat them with ranch dressing when the boy begged for the treat.
“If you brought the kids in here today, they would run right to him,” said William Bales, 55.
Durham sobbed on the witness stand when he recalled the help a young Robert Bales gave his family over the years. Durham’s son, Wade, is developmentally disabled and cannot care for his basic needs.
Growing up, Robert Bales would take Wade to camp and make sure he could participate in activities, Durham said. Robert Bales also fed Wade and cleaned up after him when he soiled himself.
“Bobby really helped,” said Durham, who described himself as a working, single father. “I needed someone there to personally help me.”
Durham’s memories of a young, compassionate Robert Bales contrasted with the ruthless characterization of the four-time combat veteran that came out early Wednesday in testimony from two men who lost 11 relatives in Bales’ slaughter.
One was Wazir. In addition to his six children, Bales killed Wazir’s wife, mother, brother, sister-in-law and a nephew. Wazir’s cousin, Khamal Adin, also testified.
“It was a good life,” before the massacre, Wazir said. “It was a happy life. It was a family life.”
Wazir would not look directly at Bales. He wore a close-cropped beard and light-colored Afghan clothing. He’d steal glances at Bales out of the sides of his eyes as he answered a prosecutor’s question.
He and his son, Habib Shah, were not home at the time of the slaughter. His son, now 5, “misses everyone. He has not forgotten anyone,” Wazir said.
Adin was the first member of the family to arrive at the scene of the killings in the village of Najiban. He traveled from the city of Kandahar to the family household and found a horrific scene: Shatarana, Wazir’s mother, was lying in a doorway with her brains on the ground.
He noticed smoke coming from a room and followed it to find a pile of smoldering bodies. He saw Wazir’s 2-year-old, Nabia, with a crushed skull, he said.
“What I did notice was a footprint,” Adin said. “A shoe print on her face, in such a way that her teeth were crushed on her tongue.”
The disparity between the account given by Bales’ supporters and that of the Afghan men was brought out by the Army prosecutor, Lt. Col. Robert Stelle. He teased it out during his cross examination of Durham, the Bales’ family friend.
“Would you agree that a parent’s love for their child is one of the strongest things in the world?” Stelle asked, identifying himself as the father of a disabled child.
“Absolutely,” Durham replied.
“If something bad happens to your child, that’s a pretty awful thing, right?” Stelle asked.
“I can’t imagine. I don’t know how you would handle it,” Durham said.