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A profile in contradictions: Staff Sgt. Bales

Mar. 21, 2012 - 04:34PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 21, 2012 - 04:34PM  |  
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, participates in an exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Bales, 38, is accuse of killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, on March 11.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, participates in an exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Bales, 38, is accuse of killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, on March 11. (Spc. Ryan Hallock / Army)
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Robert Bales boasted of being one of the good guys, a proud patriot who enlisted in the Army just two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and engaged in some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq.

But the gung-ho military volunteer had a darker, more troubled and contradictory side — which surfaced over and over during his sometimes turbulent life.

He is a portrait of opposites. A doting father of two now suspected in the cold-blooded slaughter of children. A one-time stockbroker who left financial disaster in his wake as he headed off to war with huge fines and accusations of fraud hanging over his head. A devoted breadwinner straining to keep up payments on his house.

Through it all, masking his troubles with a cheerful grin and good-guy persona.

Today, the 38-year-old Army staff sergeant remains locked in an isolation cell in a maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., accused of killing 16 Afghans, including nine children.

"Sergeant Psycho" screamed one tabloid headline as family and friends struggled to reconcile their memories of a good-natured, hardworking father and trusted soldier, with the lone gunman who, military officials say, went on a horrific nighttime shooting spree, setting some of the victims' bodies on fire.

Had their consummate good guy somehow become a monstrous rogue soldier?

Did he snap under the mounting pressures of multiple combat deployments (this was his fourth tour), financial troubles (he and his wife had walked away from one house and had just put another on the market), and the sheer hell of war? His lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said a fellow soldier's leg had been blown off days before the rampage and Bales had seen the wounds. And, Browne said, Bales had suffered injuries during his deployments, including a serious foot injury and head trauma.

Still the questions swirl.

What brought this ordinary, well-regarded soldier, who seemed never quite able to make his mark in life — not in school, or business, or the military — to this terrible place?

———

The youngest of five brothers, Bales is still referred to as "our Bobby" in Norwood, Ohio, the working class suburb of Cincinnati where he grew up. The family was all about "God, country, family," said Michelle Caddell, who lived across the street from what is still known as "the Bales' house", a two-story, maroon brick home on Ivanhoe Avenue. She described a cheerful, all around good guy, who took care of a neighbor with a disability and was respectful to young and old alike.

Her mother, Faye Blevins reacted to the news by saying: "That's not true. That's not Bobby" — a sentiment that seemed to echo through the neighborhood.

At Norwood High School Bales had the same big-hearted reputation. He was considered a good student, a military history buff and a "happy-go-lucky" member of the football team, said retired physical education teacher Jack Bouldin.

"He was a great guy with a huge heart," said teammate Steve Berling.

But while Bales was a staunch member of the team, he was never its star. That honor went to Marc Edwards, a future running back at Notre Dame and later NFL teams including the 2002 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Bales was gracious about being second-best, but it would be a tag that would dog him in many aspects of his life.

Details of Bales' years after high school are sketchy — though a pattern of sorts emerges — of not completing his goals, of never distinguishing himself, of never being the star. He spent a year at St. Joseph's, a small, private liberal arts school in Cincinnati, but didn't earn a degree. He went on to attend Ohio State University from 1993 to 1996 and majored in economics but didn't graduate.

His career as a stockbroker in Ohio imploded in 2000 when he was accused of defrauding an elderly couple from Columbus. An arbitrator later ordered Bales and the owner of the firm that employed him to pay $1.5 million — about half for compensation and half in punitive damages. The punitive damages were allowed because Bales' conduct was deemed "fraudulent and malicious." Bales ignored the fine.

He briefly ran an investment company in Florida with his brother, Mark, and former teammate, Edwards, but the business appears to have failed.

And so he decided to try to reshape his life — maybe reshape his luck — by joining the military.

In 2001, two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Bales enlisted in the Army. He would serve with the 3rd Stryker Brigade stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and be dispatched to Iraq three times.

In the Army, Bales honed a reputation as an even-tempered, hardworking soldier who had enlisted for all the right reasons — one of the good guys.

"It was the attacks; he just wanted to serve," said Army Capt. Chris Alexander, 32, who spent three years as Bales' platoon leader. "I've always admired him for that."

Alexander called Bales "one of the best guys I ever worked with," a soldier who was solid and competent and brave. He described one incident when Bales shot at a man aiming a rocket-propelled grenade at his platoon's vehicle in Mosul, Iraq, sending the grenade flying over the vehicle. It was just one occasion, Alexander said, when Bales undoubtedly saved lives.

"He is not some psychopath," Alexander said. "He's an outstanding soldier who has given a lot for this country."

After one particularly brutal fight in Najaf province in 2007, Bales told a base newspaper he had never felt such pride.

"For the simple fact that we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants and then afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us," Bales said. "I think that is the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy."

Bales' words seem eerily haunting now.

Long before the Afghanistan shooting, Bales' personal demons surfaced in brushes with the law. In 2002 he was arrested in Tacoma, Wash., in the drunken assault on a casino security officer, though charges were dropped after he completed an anger management course. A separate hit-and-run charge was dismissed in a nearby town's municipal court three years ago. It isn't clear from court documents what Bales hit; witnesses saw a man in a military-style uniform, with a shaved head and bleeding, running away.

Still, those early years in the Army were marked by good times too. Bales married Karilyn Primeau and the couple bought a two-story house in Lake Tapps, a rural reservoir community about 35 miles south of Seattle. They had two young children, a girl named Quincy and a boy named Bobby. He seemed settled and on track even though he was often away.

Karilyn Bales would blog happily about the family exploits while Bales was deployed, intending, she said in one post, to keep a record for her children and her husband. Many of the postings are chirpy accounts of decorating Easter eggs with the kids, making pot luck dinner and going to the spring fair.

But the blogs also revealed the hardships of life as a military spouse, the loneliness, uncertainty and fear. And the growing disenchantment with multiple deployments as well as the financial strains.

For although Bales received more than 20 awards and commendations, including three Army Good Conduct medals, military files show an unremarkable record. He trained as a sniper, but wasn't deployed as one. He didn't receive the Purple Heart that would be expected following a serious injury in combat. And, last year, he didn't receive a much hoped for promotion to sergeant first class.

On her blog, The Bales Family Adventures, his wife wrote about what a disappointment that was, "after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends."

Still, she also expressed relief at being able to move on, writing wishfully about their hopes for a transfer to Europe or Hawaii so they could have a great "adventure."

Those hopes were dashed late last year, when the Army redeployed Bales' unit. Her husband was off to war again, this time to Afghanistan. He would be assigned to a small base in the Panjwai District, near Kandahar, to work with a village stability force pairing special operations troops with villagers to help provide neighborhood security. Yet again, he would be in a secondary role, guarding elite Special Forces — and it wasn't something he relished.

"He wasn't thrilled about going," said Browne, Bales' lawyer. "He was told he wasn't going back, and then he was told he was going."

It would be Bales' fourth tour in a war zone.

———

Bales' name was kept secret for five days after the massacre, as the world watched images of shocked, grieving Afghans standing in their burned out homes — and questioned what kind of monster could have committed such atrocities.

And then suddenly Bales' face was everywhere, rugged, green-eyed, grinning — the very picture of the good-guy everyone remembered back home.

The Army says a surveillance camera mounted on a blimp captured an image of Bales as he returned to the base after the rampage in two villages a short distance away. In the dark, he put down his assault rifle and raised his hands in surrender. Military officials say he had been drinking.

Experts on post-traumatic stress disorder quickly weighed in, endlessly debating the toll of multiple deployments. Military officials insisted that Bales had been properly screened and declared fit for combat. They also insisted he had acted alone, though some Afghans dispute that.

Bales' wife issued a wrenching statement offering condolences to the people of the Panjwai District and saying the accusations against her husband are "completely out of character of the man I know and admire." She ended by saying that the victims and their familes are in her prayers "as is my husband, who I love very much."

Her words may be of little comfort to distraught victims.

"My little boy, Habib Shah, is the only one left alive," Muhammad Wazir said in a phone interview with NPR, as the child cried pitifully in the background. Wazir said his mother, his wife, a sister-in-law, a brother, a nephew, his four daughters and two of his sons had been killed.

Back in Washington, television crews camped outside Bales' home, which his wife had placed on the market just three days before the shooting. (She later removed it, citing a "family emergency".)

And friends talked with utter disbelief about what had happened to "our Bobby", many echoing the sentiments of Paul Wohlberg, who lives next door. He was "a good guy," Wohlberg said, who "got put in the wrong place at the wrong time."

After meeting his client for the first time, Bales' lawyer urged people not to rush to judgment.

"What's going on on the ground in Afghanistan, you read about it, I read about it, but it's totally different when you hear about it from somebody who's been there," Browne said.

But that seems overly simplistic to some, and even insulting to the Afghans whose loved ones were killed. As many combat veterans point out, thousands of soldiers have suffered the strain of multiple deployments and financial problems back home, without going on a rampage and killing children.

And so the questions remain.

Did the consummate good guy, who always seemed to be grasping for something better in his life, yet never seemed quite able to achieve it, simply break with the burden of it all?

Was he evil, or a tortured soul unable to face life — or war — anymore?

Or is there a deeper, more complicated explanation — one locked inside a solitary cell in a heavily fortified military prison in Kansas?

AP writers Gene Johnson in Seattle, Dan Sewell in Cincinnati and John Milburn in Topeka contributed to this report.

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