The suspect, a trained sniper, received a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury after sustaining a head injury in Iraq during a vehicle rollover in 2010, two U.S. military officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details of the case. The soldier was subsequently declared fit for duty, the officials said.
Other U.S. military officials said they were working quickly to build a case against the suspect but declined to identify him until charges could be filed. They described him as a married, 38-year-old staff sergeant with two children who joined the Army 11 years ago. They said he had served three tours of duty in Iraq and deployed to Afghanistan for the first time in December.
“The evidence at this point, both in terms of observations and reports and interviews, leads us to believe that he acted as an individual,” Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told CNN. “We’re going to do a thorough investigation. We’re going to hold this individual accountable.”
Under military law, the shooter, if convicted, could face the death penalty.
U.S. officials said the soldier abruptly walked off a combat outpost about 3 a.m. Sunday local time. Allen said that an Afghan soldier standing watch reported the unauthorized departure but that others on the base could not mobilize quickly enough to track down the missing American before the attack, the deadliest on civilians by a U.S. service member during the decade-long Afghanistan war.
“There was a head count done amongst the American soldiers; [they] recognized that he was missing, unaccounted for,” Allen said. “We put together a search party right away, and it was as that search party was forming that we began to have indications of the outcome of his departure.”
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the soldier returned to the base on his own, admitted what he had done and surrendered.
“He went out in the early morning and went to these homes and fired on these families,” Panetta told reporters. “And at some point after that came back to the [forward operating base] and basically turned himself in and told individuals what had happened.”
Asked whether the soldier had confessed to the killings, Panetta said he suspected “that was the case.”
U.S. military officials said the soldier was part of an Afghan police training program in villages in Kandahar province and had been assigned to support U.S. Special Operations forces in the area.