Afghan rampage suspect Robert Bales was a soldier strained by deployments

Three days before the shooting rampage, as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales marked his 1,192nd day of combat deployment, the Army sniper’s house in suburban Tacoma, Wash., was put up for a short sale in the local real-estate listings. Years of overseas duty on a sergeant’s salary had squeezed the family’s resources to the breaking point, and now Bales’s wooded property was in disrepair and more than $50,000 underwater.

The news, though not unexpected, was a fresh blow to the 38-year-old father of two who was then three months into an Afghanistan assignment he had hoped to avoid. Outwardly, friends say, Bales bore physical scars from injuries suffered during three previous tours in Iraq. But the inner wounds from his multiple deployments and his family’s deteriorating circumstances had largely escaped notice, until the evening Army officials say he picked up his rifle and walked alone into a sleeping village just outside his base near Kandahar.

In less than an hour, they say, Bales methodically executed 16 civilians, including four children about the same age as his own son and daughter. Then he set their bodies afire and walked back to his base to turn himself in.

Exactly what caused Bales to apparently commit such a horrific act March 11 may never be known with certainty. Hundreds of thousands of other U.S. service members have borne similar stresses during 10 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, 24 hours after Bales’s identity was made public Friday, a portrait emerges of a soldier and a young family struggling under the cumulative physical and emotional strain of a decade of deployments in the country’s two wars.

By all accounts a devoted family man and an even-tempered soldier who received awards and accolades for his service, Bales appeared to have been transformed in a single day into an alleged mass murderer behind one of the worst atrocities since the start of the Afghan conflict. The slayings have thrown U.S.-Afghan relations into crisis as U.S. military planners search for ways to speed the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

While the crimes of which Bales is accused are singularly brutal, advocates for military families say the pressures Bales faced are commonplace in a military stretched by the longest period of conflict in the country’s history. Michael Waddington, an attorney for service members accused of violent crimes, said the Pentagon lacks the resources to adequately screen and treat troops suffering from serious anxieties and stress.

“It’s surprising this kind of thing hasn’t happened before, given the amount of time we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.

The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been measured to be as high as 31 percent, and numerous studies have shown that repeated deployment is a risk factor. The relationship between PTSD, anger and violent behavior is less clear — and a subject of intensive research.

On fourth deployment

The man accused of the slayings is a former stockbroker from Ohio who joined the Army shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He witnessed combat during all of his four deployments, and on the day before the killings he saw a comrade lose his leg to a land mine. Bales himself had been wounded twice, including a concussive head injury suffered when his Humvee overturned in Iraq. Yet, the Army had certified him as fit for combat before deploying him for the fourth time — to Afghanistan — in December 2011.

Army comrades described him as a model soldier who was polite, professional and exceptionally cool under fire. A student of Middle Eastern history and customs, he often admonished younger GIs to treat noncombatants with courtesy and respect.

“Some guys had a pretty negative attitude, but Bales wasn’t like that at all,” said Capt. Chris Alexander, who served with Bales in Iraq. “He said there was no need to be a jerk. Be polite, be professional and have a plan to kill everyone you meet if you need to.”

Alexander said the stress of the combat was a constant presence during their time together, fighting in hostile provinces in Iraq, where friends and foes mingled together and where soldiers spent many hours in “mind-numbing boredom together waiting to get blown up.”

Yet, Bales, he said, “seemed far less stressed than I was. He just has that kind of personality.”

Neighbors and colleagues said Bales had exhibited signs of emotional strain in the months and years before the events. His home visits had included a few brushes with the law, including a drunken-driving arrest in 2005 and a hit-and-run accident in 2008. Friends say both Bales and his wife were surprised and deeply disappointed when he was ordered to Afghanistan. The family had been struggling during the long deployments to pay bills and raise two children, both born while Bales was overseas.

Hints of the financial stress faced by the Baleses were evident at a property Kari Bales bought before their marriage. They lived there briefly until they bought a house in late 2005.

The two-story duplex is on a small street in a development of modest houses behind a busy commercial strip in the Tacoma suburb of Auburn. The gray paint on the siding and the blue paint on the trim are peeling. A bright orange sign stuck on the door, dated November 2010, states that Auburn building officials had declared the home unfit for human occupancy. The only indicator of happier days is a small iron wind chime in the shape of a sun with a smiling face.

‘He just wanted to go back’

Tim Burgess, who lives in the adjoining half of the duplex, said he got to know Bales when he moved into the house before the couple were married. At the time, Bales limped because of a foot injury he suffered in his first deployment in Iraq, and he made routine visits to a rehabilitation center, Burgess said. But Bales spoke eagerly of returning to Iraq.

“He was looking forward to getting his health back and going back after his foot got better,” Burgess said. “He was trying to get back in shape. He wanted to be a soldier. That’s what he lived for. He just wanted to go back. That was his goal, to get healthy and go back.”

Burgess said he never saw any flashes of anger from Bales, but he was aware the couple were taking on a lot of financial obligations.

Last year, Bales was up for a promotion to sergeant first class, a move that would have improved the family’s financial prospects. When he failed to receive the higher rank, his wife spoke openly of the emotional toll of the rejection in a blog she kept at the time.

She wrote in March 2011 that she was “disappointed after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends.” She said the family was hoping for an end to the long separations and hardships.

“We are hoping that if we are proactive and ask to go to a location that the Army will allow us to have some control over where we go next,” she wrote.

As a boy growing up in Ohio, Bales was the youngest of five sons in a close-knit family. “He was the glue that held the family together. He was the baby, the youngest of a very strong family,” said Michael Blevins, 35, a childhood friend who grew up across the street.

“I’m kind of dumbstruck,” Blevins said, looking over at the tall red-brick house where the Bales family lived until the late 1990s. “It seemed like he had so much love to give. I looked up to him. He was kind of a mentor when I was younger. He was just one of those guys: If you got around him, he had this radiance about him. He pulled you in. He was just a great guy.”

Even after Bales left Norwood in 1991 and began studying at Mount St. Joseph, he came back often to the old neighborhood, Blevins said. Bales studied physical therapy at the college and put what he was learning into practice by assisting a disabled neighbor. “He came down here and he would take him for a walk around the neighborhood,” Blevins said.

After Sept. 11, Blevins said, Bales told him he couldn’t keep working as a stockbroker. “He said joining the military was something he had to do,” Blevins recalled. “He couldn’t just keep making money.”

Bales’s father, Garfield, had also served in the Army, according to Blevins.

The last time Blevins saw Bales was in 2008, when Bales came to town for the funeral of Blevins’s father.

He last heard from Bales last month in a Facebook message. “He talked about his son’s third birthday,” Blevins said. “He has two kids and a great wife. Everything seemed to be going great for him.”

Bales was not a big drinker when they were growing up and showed no flashes of violence.

“That’s not Bobby. I’ve known him for 35 years. He couldn’t do that. He wasn’t a big drinker. Even when we were kids, he was usually the one that tried to keep everybody sober,” Blevins said. “There’s no way Bobby Bales could have done that. You can ask anyone in the entire city.”

In isolation

On Saturday, Bales was held in pretrial confinement at the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility, a detention center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he is being kept in a private cell. His wife and two children are under federal protection amid threats by the Taliban of reprisal killings.

A statement issued Saturday by Bales’s legal team said the Bales family was “stunned in the face of this tragedy.”

“But they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services,” the statement read.

Morello reported from Tacoma and Thompson from Norwood. Staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty in Tacoma and Peter Finn, Julie Tate, Carol D. Leonnig and David Brown in Washington contributed to this report.

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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