Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and hundreds of other Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers were ill-prepared for an unexpected mission the Army gave them on short notice to support elite Special Operations teams in remote corners of Afghanistan, according to a newly released investigation into Bales’ massacre of 16 Afghan civilians.
This JBLM Stryker battalion’s deployment would be unlike any of its previous tours to Iraq. And, with less than three months to prepare, few of its leaders were able to coach soldiers for an assignment that would place them in far-flung villages working alongside troops they’d never met before.
“We failed a lot of soldiers,” an officer from Bales’ battalion later told investigators.
Those observations are contained in an investigation that examined whether commanders and other soldiers around Bales could have done anything to prevent his shooting of 22 Afghan villagers, six of whom survived, in a nighttime rampage outside his combat outpost in March 2012.
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The report, released last week by U.S. Central Command three years after its completion, concludes that no one could have foreseen the depravity of Bales’ breakdown, even though he had shown signs of trouble.
The Army has long held Bales, 42, to be solely responsible for his crimes. The father of two who lived in Lake Tapps pleaded guilty to the murders of 16 villagers. He’s serving a life sentence without possibility of parole at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Just two others were disciplined for actions connected to the killings. One was a Green Beret ejected from the Army for giving steroids to Bales. Another Green Beret was disciplined for drinking alcohol in the war zone. Bales was drinking the night of the killings, too.
The report’s author, Maj. Gen. Rick Waddell, wrote that Special Forces leaders at the small outpost where Bales served should have caught that misconduct earlier.
“Small unit leadership failure contributed to the (Special Forces) command not knowing about this information,” he wrote.
More broadly, Waddell’s report gives the military’s deepest look both at Bales’ stateside leadership in his Stryker brigade and at the Special Forces teams who commanded him during the deployment.
It includes several recommendations to improve partnerships linking Special Forces teams with conventional Army units.
“This mission places unique demands on traditional infantry units, and it is therefore essential that these infantry units are afforded the appropriate time, training and equipment to prepare for and execute the mission,” Waddell wrote.
Bales’ unit did not have those advantages when it left for Afghanistan in late 2011.
The mission had its origin in a 2010 movement by the military to win over the support of Afghan tribes.
Instead of indefinitely pouring 10,000-soldier divisions into the country, the U.S. would place 12-man Special Operations teams in villages and reinforce them with about 15 to 20 conventional infantry soldiers for extra security.
The most famous advocate of this approach was former Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant, who in 2009 wrote a paper that encouraged the military to win the war in Afghanistan one tribe at a time. In Afghanistan, Gant would shed his armor, dress like a villager and bring tribal leaders to his side.
He led a Special Forces team in 2010 and 2011 that was given infantry support. Gant stayed in Afghanistan for another tour, this time adding infantrymen from Bales’ unit.
Gant’s run of success ended in 2012 when a lieutenant from the JBLM battalion drew attention to Gant’s unusual tactics, which by then included bringing his wife to the battlefield. The young officer’s complaint led to Gant’s demotion and forced retirement from the Army.
Gant’s wife, former Washington Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson, documented his ascent and his downfall in the 2014 book “American Spartan: the Promise, the Mission and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant.”
According to the command investigation released last week, Bales’ unit received a number of mixed messages from the Army before it left for Afghanistan.
As late as May of 2011, leaders at JBLM felt almost certain that the 4,000 soldiers who served in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division would not go to war.
They traveled to the Yakima Training Center in central Washington that month and practiced a style of warfare they would be more likely to encounter against a former Soviet state instead of the insurgency soldiers fought in Afghanistan.
That month, word began to filter out the brigade might be picked for an Afghanistan mission. Later, the Army sent another signal suggesting the brigade would stay home, according to the newly released report.
Soldiers didn’t know for sure that they were going to Afghanistan until August 2011.
Bales and the 700 soldiers in the brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment (2-3) would leave less than three months later. They were also the ones picked to support Special Operations teams at different sites in Afghanistan instead of fighting in one location with the rest of their brigade.
Bales appeared to embrace the mission.
He attended special training with Green Berets from the 3rd Special Forces Group to prepare younger soldiers for their new assignment. One of the Green Berets later told an Army investigator that Bales seemed attentive and responsive.
Bales also went out of his way at a large exercise in California to try to focus soldiers on new obstacles they’d face in Afghanistan barely a year after they had returned from a mission in Iraq.
“Staff Sgt. Bales did it the way he always does it; he wanted to be the best at it,” one of his friends from his battalion later told Army investigators.
In one instance, Bales organized a mock Afghan village council meeting so soldiers could get familiar with manners they might encounter.
Bales “was the noncommissioned officer who was most concerned that we were going to war,” said an officer from his battalion who praised Bales’ preparations.
But in Afghanistan, Bales’ concern for his soldiers quickly veered into paranoia.
Lower-ranking soldiers noticed his behavior grow increasingly aggressive. He made racist comments and joked about shooting Afghan soldiers. He also started taking steroids, according to the investigation.
That was why soldiers who served with Bales, after hearing reports of a horrible slaughter, didn’t have to be told that he was behind the killings.
“I remember somebody saying, ‘Hey man, this is Staff Sgt. Bales,’ even before the name was released,” said an officer from Bales’ unit who deployed to a different location in Afghanistan that year.
“He’s the only one crazy enough to do it,” the officer said.
Bales served at a small outpost with a 12-man team of Green Berets from the 7th Special Forces Group, a handful of other experienced Special Operations personnel, several military contractors, an Afghan army platoon and 19 JBLM infantrymen.
Bales was the highest-ranking infantryman. He reported to a Special Forces captain and a chief warrant officer.
Bales was far from other soldiers in his JBLM battalion. They were spread out over 48 locations. They’d check in by email and with written messages, but had little other contact.
Many of them also reportedly encountered problems supporting Special Forces teams.
“It just felt like we weren’t being treated as equal partners in the mission,” one infantryman told Army investigators.
Some highly trained Green Berets did not know what to do with the infantry squads that were assigned to them.
At Bales’ base, most of the Green Berets had eight to 15 years in the Army. Aside from Bales, most of the JBLM soldiers at the outpost had less than two years in the military.
“Frankly, they’re not up to par with the rest of us,” one Green Beret told Army investigators when asked to describe the caliber of the JBLM infantrymen.
‘AWESOME TASK AHEAD OF YOU’
Waddell focused much of his report on ways to improve partnerships between Special Forces and conventional Army forces.
His suggestions included requiring Special Forces officers to take special training on how to lead infantrymen in a combined mission and opening communication between the two distinct groups.
Waddell noted that the partnership was a critical tool at that point in the war, enabling U.S. military personnel to live closer to Afghan villages where they could make a difference.
The importance of the mission was laid out for Bales and other sergeants from the 2-3 in a Nov. 27, 2011, memo from the JBLM infantry officer who was his commander before his deployment.
“This deployment will be tougher and culturally different than others (that) our unit and each of you personally may have have experienced before. As I said previously, never before in the history of warfare has so much responsibility been placed on our junior leaders. You have an awesome task ahead of you, one that will require the very best you can offer up,” the officer wrote.
Four months later, Bales was in custody awaiting a flight home to an Army jail.