Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ barged into a fellow soldier’s living quarters at 2 a.m. with a confession the soldier remembers clearly: Bales had killed Afghan villagers and had a chilling plan to carry out even more violence that night.
“I just shot up some people,” he reportedly told a sleepy Sgt. Jason McLaughlin at their small outpost in Kandahar Province.
“No you didn’t, Bob,” McLaughlin told him, utterly incredulous that Bales would leave their combat outpost and slaughter Afghans in their sleep.
Today, Bales’ admission appears a frank confession of murder in a war zone. Eight months ago, McLaughlin considered it so “outside the realm of possibility” that he went back to sleep.
McLaughlin recounted their conversation Monday in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where Bales appeared for the first day of an expected two-week evidence hearing that could lead to a death penalty court-martial for the four-time Stryker combat veteran.
Bales, of Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, is accused of murdering 16 Afghan villagers and wounding six more in the early hours of March 11. He did not make a statement Monday, speaking only to confirm that he understood the charges against him.
He arrived at court shortly before his 9 a.m. hearing, where he embraced his wife, Kari Bales. She has insisted in national television interviews that she believes her husband is innocent. The couple has two children and used to live in Lake Tapps.
They whispered to each other when they hugged, but otherwise sat silently through the day’s testimony.
Prosecutors cast Bales as a soldier who was “deliberate and methodical” in massacring victims in two villages. They characterized him as dissatisfied with his life at home and yearning to avenge a March 5 attack that took the leg of an explosive ordnance technician assigned to his outpost.
Soldiers who knew Bales testified that they were stunned by the killings. Cpl. David Godwin said he grew furious when he learned nine of the alleged victims were children.
Prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse argued the killings undermined the Army’s mission there to win “the hearts and minds” of Afghan villagers and endangered the soldiers Bales left behind. Morse wants the Army to pursue the death penalty, a punishment it has not handed down for other war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s not clear whether the Army will take that course against Bales. His two-week hearing will culminate with a recommendation from an Army investigating officer. Later, a general will set the top penalty if Bales’ case proceeds to a court-martial.
Morse capped his opening argument with a silent, 15-minute surveillance video that prosecutors say shows Bales returning from the second village. In it, a caped figure slinks along mud walls as he approaches the entrance to Bales’ outpost.
The figure jogs to the gate, where he is met by armed U.S. soldiers. The man in the video drops an M4 rifle, a grenade launcher and a pistol. He puts his hands on his head and is escorted inside.
McLaughlin and Godwin were the two soldiers who brought Bales into custody about 4:45 a.m. that day. They remembered him as bloodied from his face to his boots.
Bales kept telling them, “I thought I was doing the right thing,” Godwin remembered.
Each thought Bales had a strange appearance – heavily armed, not wearing his Kevlar vest, but wearing a sheet like a cape. They figured he wore it like that because he’d heard Taliban insurgents were using tarps to conceal themselves from American surveillance cameras.
“It was kind of surreal,” Godwin said.
Another soldier who saw Bales before and after the alleged massacre remembered an ashen expression.
Bales “just had a ghostlike look – the absence of emotion,” Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Clayton Blackshear said. “It’s almost like someone’s not there.”
Bales first visited Blackshear at midnight. Blackshear was trying to sleep and didn’t want to hear Bales’ pitch to be aggressive in avenging the March 5 attack, or his request to take on more responsibility during their combat patrols.
In retrospect, Blackshear sees their conversation as a plea for help.
McLaughlin raised the alarm about Bales’ disappearance during a guard shift about 3 a.m., when Afghan soldiers reported seeing an American leave the outpost. Bales’ goodbye resonated with him as he recalled the last time he saw Bales before the shootings.
Bales “grabbed my hand,” McLaughlin said. “He was like, ‘take care of my kids.’ I was like, ‘no, Bob, take care of your own kids.’”
The soldiers’ testimony on Monday revealed some loose standards at the outpost.
Godwin, McLaughlin and Blackshear each was disciplined for using alcohol there as the investigation into the killings unfolded. Blackshear also crushed and snorted a valium pill he received from an Army doctor.
Bales had been showing off steroids to Godwin and McLaughlin in the weeks before the killings. He wanted “to get jacked,” McLaughlin remembered.
Godwin had known Bales for several years. They served together on the 3rd Brigade’s 2009-10 deployment to Iraq and remained in the unit afterward. They did not drink alcohol or flout Army standards on the Iraq tour, Godwin said.
This time, however, they were splintered off from their Stryker Brigade and assigned to the Special Forces team. Only 19 conventional infantry soldiers from 3rd Brigade were at the outpost. Bales was the most senior noncommissioned officer among them.
Godwin and McLaughlin noted that Bales’ temper had grown short last spring. It could have been the March 5 attack. It could have been the steroids, or his disappointment at not receiving a promotion.
He assaulted an Afghan contractor in the weeks before the killings when the Afghan accidentally hit him with a box while unloading supplies. Bales also had grown short with some of fellow soldiers.
His defense attorney, Emma Scanlan, probed witness statements about Bales’ changed behavior, connecting it to mood-altering substances he was using or to possible post-traumatic stress from previous deployments.
She did not make an opening argument, and she noted that the defense would have preferred to delay the hearing while it processes Army evidence it only recently received.
Bales’ hearing is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning. Live testimony from witnesses in Afghanistan is expected to begin Friday.