The soldier who committed the worst atrocities of the Afghanistan War acknowledged while asking for a reduced sentence last year that he had lost compassion for Iraqis and Afghans over the course of his four combat deployments with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
“My mind was consumed by war,” the former Staff Sgt. Robert Bales wrote in a letter late last year to the senior Army officer at JBLM.
“I planted war and hate for the better part of 10 years and harvested violence,” he wrote. “After being in prison two years, I understand that what I thought was normal was the farthest thing from being normal.”
Bales, who was sentenced in August 2013 to life in prison for the killings of 16 Afghan civilians, including seven children, failed to persuade Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza to overturn his conviction or modify his sentence. Lanza in March rejected Bales’ clemency bid after considering the weight of evidence in Bales’ court-martial, I Corps spokesman Col. Dave Johnson said Friday.
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Lanza’s rejection automatically sent the case to the Army Court of Criminal Appeal, where it might be considered again by military judges one day.
The News Tribune on Friday obtained 27 pages of letters Bales and his loved ones wrote to Lanza last fall while the general was considering whether to uphold Bales’ conviction. The set included letters from Bales’ wife, his in-laws and several soldiers who knew him on his earlier Iraq deployments when he was regarded as a sound infantryman.
His veteran friends described the qualities that led them to trust Bales in Iraq and expressed their remorse that they were not in Afghanistan with him at the time of his crimes.
“My only regret in life is that I wasn’t there in Afghanistan when Robert really needed a friend to see that he was struggling and pull him from the edge,” a JBLM staff sergeant wrote on Bales’ behalf.
Bales’s own eight-page letter revealed his continuing struggle to come to grips with the massacre he committed in March 2012 when he twice used the cover of darkness to sneak out of his combat outpost and murder Afghan civilians in their homes.
“I would do anything not to be the bad guy,” he wrote.
Just as he said at his sentencing, Bales wrote that he could not explain his actions.
“Over my past two years of incarceration, I have come to understand there isn’t a why; there is only pain,” he wrote.
‘PARANOID AND INEFFECTIVE’
Bales, 41, spent his entire Army career with JBLM’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, deploying with its Strykers three times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He was a married father of two living in Lake Tapps when he went on his last deployment in late 2011 to the Panjwai district of Kandahar province.
Since his confinement, Bales has been baptized and focused on his Christian faith. He’s also taking classes to finish a bachelor’s degree and learning to be a barber.
Taken together, his clemency letters juxtapose the horror of his crimes with the routine rhythms of domestic life he wants to return to with his family. He writes of wishing to help his wife support their family and the moments he’s missing with his children.
He daydreams of taking his son and daughter for a hike with their black Labrador. He wishes he could play ball with his son and take the boy fishing.
In one section, he writes of his wife, Kari: “I just want to be there for her, to help her validate herself and say, ‘You’re great, and I love you so much.’ ”
His clemency letter describes in more detail than he has given in public how his experiences in combat made him “paranoid” when he embarked on his last mission.
His battalion within the 3rd Brigade had an unusual mission that year. It was broken up into small teams and assigned to different Special Operations outposts throughout Afghanistan rather fighting together in a traditional infantry assignment. That realignment kept Bales away from veteran soldiers who knew him best.
Investigative documents obtained by The News Tribune last summer through the Freedom of Information Act showed that lower-ranking enlisted soldiers at his Special Operations outpost regarded Bales as “paranoid” and “crazy.” Higher-ranking soldiers viewed him as a dependable noncommissioned officer looking out for his soldiers.
Bales’ letter acknowledges that the junior soldiers read his state of mind correctly.
“I didn’t want to make a decision on the ground and lose one of my guys,” he wrote. “Normally that would be a good thing, but now I know it made me paranoid and ineffective.”
His descent unfolded over three tours in Iraq when he grew to “hate” “everyone who isn’t American,” he wrote.
Bales wrote that he would replay his decisions in war after each deployment: Could he have prevented an injury to a soldier by taking greater care with equipment? Could he have done something to draw attention to a buried explosive? If he had shot someone more quickly, could he have saved the life of a friend?
“The route I cleared in (Baghdad in 2007) where the deep buried (bomb) blew up the Stryker and killed four and wounded two others, if only I had noticed something. It is not if your friends are going to die, but when.”
For him, those experiences were proof that Iraq and Afghanistan civilians who allowed bombs to be planted targeting American soldiers were part of the problem.
“I became callous to them even being human; they were all enemy. Guilt and fear are with you day and night. Over time your experiences solidify your prejudice,” he wrote.
DRUGS, MONEY PROBLEMS AND WAR INJURIES
Bales appears to have read extensively about how his crimes have been portrayed in news media. He uses five paragraphs to analyze some theories that have been floated in news reports in which people speculated about what caused his breakdown. He acknowledges that those factors, which range from past head injuries to money problems back home, weighed on him.
In those paragraphs, he wrote:
• Post-traumatic stress disorder could not explain the massacre. “I still struggle with believing PTSD is real. I always thought it was an excuse to be a coward.”
• He sought treatment for head injuries and PTSD at Madigan Army Medical Center in 2011 but was convinced doctors were not helping him. “He just kept telling me my anger was a mask for another emotion. What emotion! The only thing I felt was weak was talking about emotions.”
• He admitted drinking alcohol during his last deployment despite Army regulations prohibiting that conduct. “It just didn’t seem like that big of a deal.” He also overused sleeping pills.
• He took steroids on the deployment to “make me bigger, stronger and faster” and because they eased pain in his knees and lower back. He acknowledged, “I put very little thought into the effect they had on my mood or emotions.”
• He admitted that he was hundreds of thousands of dollars under water on two mortgages and that he had fought with his wife about money just before the killings. He also wrote that his wife had begun to work steadily at the time of his deployment, which was reducing some of the family’s financial stress. But the couple argued about their finances a week before the killings, on the same day a colleague lost a leg in combat. Bales ended up selling $8,000 of financial assets to help pay bills.
“I guess you could say we were having marriage problems, but who doesn’t after four deployments?” he wrote.
CLEMENCY TOUGH TO WIN
Bales is an unlikely candidate for leniency in military courts because of the gravity of his crimes, said a military defense attorney who has represented soldiers accused of unlawful killings in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dan Conway said military parole boards have begun to reduce sentences for military service members who may have shot unarmed people in combat situations. He likens those charges to manslaughter.
But the handful of soldiers such as Bales who have been convicted of premeditated murder have not had much luck seeking reduced sentences. That set includes the former Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs and Spc. Jeremy Morlock, both former JBLM Stryker soldiers who were convicted of unlawfully killing three Afghan civilians in 2010.
“Generally the boards are more forgiving of truly agonizing combat decisions,” said Conway, who represented a soldier was sentenced to seven years in prison for participating in Gibbs’ and Morlock’s killings.
“(Bales) falls into the class of people who were convicted of premeditated murder and really committed premeditated murder,” Conway said.
Although his letter asks for mercy, Bales seems to acknowledge that he won’t be leaving the Army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
“I pray every day for (my children),” he wrote. “I pray He gives me a chance to be a father to them or lets me die in my sleep so their wounds can heal.”
Note: Robert Bales in late 2014 sought clemency for his killings of 16 Afghan civilian in March 2012. He wrote this statement to I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza. The News Tribune redacted names of his children and friends. The News Tribune also redacted information describing his family members’ medical conditions.