Lake Tapps, Wash. Bypassed for a promotion and struggling to pay for his house, Robert Bales was eyeing a way out of his job at a Washington state military base months before he allegedly gunned down 16 civilians in an Afghan war zone, records and interviews showed as a deeper picture emerged Saturday of the Army sergeant’s financial troubles and brushes with the law.
While Bales, 38, sat in an isolated cell at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.’s military prison Saturday, classmates and neighbors from suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, remembered him as a “happy-go-lucky” high school football player who took care of a special needs child and watched out for troublemakers in the neighborhood.
But court records and interviews show that the 10-year veteran, with a string of commendations for good conduct after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, had joined the Army after a Florida investment job went sour, had a Seattle-area home condemned, struggled to make payments on another and failed to get a promotion or a transfer a year ago.
His legal troubles included charges that he assaulted a girlfriend and, in a hit-and run accident, ran bleeding in military clothes into the woods, court records show. He told police he fell asleep at the wheel and paid a fine to get the charges dismissed, the records show.
Military officials say that after drinking on a southern Afghanistan base, Bales crept away on March 11 to two slumbering villages overnight, shooting his victims and setting many of them on fire. Nine of the 16 killed were children, and 11 belonged to one family.
“This is some crazy stuff if it’s true,” Steve Berling, a high school classmate, said of the revelations about the father of two known as “Bobby” in his hometown of Norwood, Ohio.
Bales hasn’t been charged yet in the shootings, which have endangered complicated relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and threatened to upend U.S. policy over the decade-old war.
His former platoon leader said Saturday Bales was a model soldier inspired by 9/11 to serve who saved lives in firefights on his second of three Iraq missions.
“He’s one of the best guys I ever worked with,” said Army Capt. Chris Alexander, who led Bales on a 15-month deployment in Iraq.
“He is not some psychopath. He’s an outstanding soldier who has given a lot for this country.”
But pressing family troubles were hinted at by his wife, Kari, on multiple blogs posted with names like The Bales Family Adventures and BabyBales. A year ago, she wrote that Bales was hoping for a promotion or a transfer after nine years stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, Wash.
“We are hoping to have as much control as possible” over the future, Kari Bales wrote last March 25. “Who knows where we will end up. I just hope that we are able to rent our house so that we can keep it. I think we are both still in shock.”
After Bales lost out on a promotion to E7, a first-class sergeant, the family hoped to go to either Germany, Italy or Hawaii for an “adventure,” she said. They hoped to move by last summer; instead the Army redeployed his unit, the 2nd Infantry Division of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, named after armored Stryker vehicles, to Afghanistan.
It would be Bales’ fourth tour in a war zone. He joined the military two months after 9/11 and spent more than three years in Iraq during three separate assignments since 2003. His attorney said he was injured twice in Iraq — once losing part of his foot — but his 20 or so commendations do not include the Purple Heart, given to soldiers wounded in combat.