The Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians last year gave his first public apology Thursday, yet he and his attorneys stopped short of offering an explanation for the killings.
Instead, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales said he could not apologize enough for the grief he caused the families of his victims.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “If I could bring back their families, I would in a heartbeat. I can’t comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids. I know I murdered their families.”
Bales, a 40-year-old father of two who used to live in Lake Tapps, has already received a life sentence and is waiting to learn whether his 40-minute apology will convince six jurors that he deserves a chance for parole. His sentencing trial is expected to conclude today with closing arguments.
His remarks brought tears to the eyes of friends and family who traveled across the country. Bales hung his head for a full minute when he finished speaking. His wife, Kari, visibly sobbed for the first time in a year’s worth of court appearances.
“My wife, family, mom, kids — I’m sorry I disgraced you. I’m sorry I let you down,” Bales said on the witness stand.
His attorneys did not call any mental health experts, a decision that contradicted their public statements since the March 11, 2012, massacre. They had suggested Bales suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of head injuries from three previous deployments, all with the same Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
Defense attorney John Henry Browne insisted Bales suffered from those ailments, but he said Thursday he did not want to wade into a “battle of experts.” The Army was ready to call other experts who have reached different conclusions about Bales’ medical records.
Also, the defense team could not offer evidence that contradicted Bales’ previous plea agreement, which allowed him to avoid a possible death penalty.
Bales nonetheless hinted at the stress he felt from his repeated combat tours when he described an anger that he noticed developing after his second tour in Iraq – a violent, 15-month deployment.
At home, Bales would become furious doing dishes or sitting in traffic.
“I was mad at myself for being mad,” he said. “You couldn’t just flush it and start over.”
He coped by sneaking sips of gin and hiding a stash of sleeping pills from his wife.
After his third tour in Iraq, Bales sought counseling at Madigan Army Medical Center. He went for about a month and a half. Looking back, he said he should have continued seeking therapy and been more open about his feelings with family and peers.
“I think I was a coward for stopping,” he said.
Defense attorneys centered their bid for parole on Bales’ remorse and on his biography. They contend the one-time high school football team captain from Ohio who joined the Army after the 2001 terrorist attacks broke down under the pressure of repeated combat duty.
Three career soldiers who served with Bales in Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division testified on his behalf, saying he performed well in combat and showed an upbeat attitude when they knew him.
One of them was Maj. Brent Clemmer, who commanded Bales’ infantry company on its second Iraq tour in 2006-07. He once nominated Bales for an Army valor medal.
“I walked myself into my office, poured myself a glass of scotch and cried,” Clemmer said, describing his first reaction to news that Bales had committed a heinous war crime.
Bales’ voice deepened and he appeared to cry for a moment when he turned his apologies to soldiers who served with him in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. Its motto is “Patriot.”
“I love the Army. I stood next to some really great guys, some real heroes – call it Patriot Brotherhood,” he said. “I can’t say I’m sorry to those guys enough, and all that doesn’t take away from all the people I killed.”
Marc Edwards, a childhood friend of Bales who went on to earn a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots, also testified as a character witness. Edwards could not fathom how the young man he knew became the killer of women and children in Afghanistan.
“It didn’t make any sense to me,” he said.
Bales revealed that he tried to get out of his final tour by seeking an assignment in a recruiting unit when he learned that his battalion was tapped for duty in Afghanistan.
By then, he had been overseas at war for 37 months out of the previous eight years. He wanted time with his family.
He put on a stoic face when he learned it was too late to transfer out.
“I kind of hid behind a mask. I wouldn’t want to go to combat with a leader who didn’t want to go combat,” he said.
Bales said the anger that troubled him at home swelled in Afghanistan, where he faced a challenging assignment supporting a Special Forces team. He flew off the handle when soldiers made small mistakes.
He also started taking steroids, and he drank alcohol at times in the looser environment that prevailed at the Special Forces outpost.
“Stupid,” he said. “I’m sorry. It was disgraceful.”
Bales did not talk about the night of the killings. According to his plea agreement, he drank alcohol with fellow soldiers, watched a movie and stewed on personal and financial troubles.
He twice sneaked out of the base with a rifle and a pistol to murder any Afghan he saw. Afghan witnesses have testified that he ignored their pleas for mercy, including boys and girls who shouted, “We are children!”
Nine Afghan villagers traveled to Lewis-McChord for the trial this week. They did not watch Bales’ statement, though they are still in the area.
Bales saw them testify over the past week, detailing their grief. One cursed him.
“Nothing makes it right,” he said. “So many times before I’ve asked myself. I don’t know why. Sorry just isn’t good enough. I’m sorry.”