• Washington Post
  • March 16, 2012 - 11:38 PM

WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials Friday evening identified the soldier who allegedly killed 16 Afghan villagers as Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a trained sniper who had served three tours in Iraq and suffered multiple wounds.

Bales, 38, a married father of two who enlisted 11 years ago, was being flown Friday to a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to await possible criminal charges. He is accused of leaving his base in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province and committing one of the worst atrocities by U.S. forces during the war in Afghanistan.

Most of the dead were women and children. The incident has sparked significant backlash in Afghanistan, straining already difficult relations with the United States over conduct of the war there.

The suspect's name had been a closely guarded secret since he allegedly surrendered to authorities after the shootings on Sunday morning. Officials released the name to several news organizations simultaneously, after withholding it for five days.

His attorney, John Henry Browne, has said that Bales did not want to deploy to Afghanistan in December, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his deployments, and had a head injury during a deployment in Iraq. Bales also had seen one of his fellow soldiers lose his leg in an explosion on the day he's accused of going on the rampage, Browne said.

"His leg was blown off, and my client was standing next to him," Browne told the Associated Press, citing information given to him by the soldier's family.

Bales lived with his wife and children, ages 3 and 4, in Lake Tapps, Wash., about a half-hour drive east of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma. He was based there for several years. The family was moved onto the base for their protection, officials have said. The neighborhood where Bales lived includes many military families, according to neighbors.

While in southern Iraq, Bales was part of a long, bloody battle in 2007 in which 250 enemy fighters were killed and 81 were wounded, while members of Bales' unit suffered no casualties, according to the Army news release. It described the battle as "apocalyptic."

"I've never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day," Bales was quoted as saying. "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. I think that's the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy, someone who puts his family in harm's way like that."

A member of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division based at Lewis-McChord, Bales said of the battle, "the cool part about this was World War II-style. You dug in. Guys were out there digging a fighting position in the ground." He also described an intense firefight as his unit tried to secure a downed helicopter: "It was like a match lit up. It looked like a toy with a candle lit underneath it."

Government officials, in some news reports, have said Bales may have been drinking the night of the shootings and was agitated by marital problems at home. But Browne disputed that, saying the reports were "very offensive." The couple had financial problems but nothing severe, he said, adding that they had "a very strong marriage."

Family members of Bales could not be reached for comment Friday night.

Mystery about motive

While his background has started to come into clearer focus, the story behind the rampage in southern Afghanistan remains largely a mystery.

U.S. and Afghan officials have said that the suspect left his base alone, shot 16 people in their homes and attempted to burn their bodies before returning to the base and turning himself in.

In the absence of a clear sense of the soldier's motive, some veterans' groups and mental health advocates fear that the image being stitched together from the loose assemblage of facts is of a crazy soldier gone wild.

"The main concern is that we'll be back where we started, with a stigma that all veterans that return are broken in some way," said Ryan Gallucci, the VFW's deputy director of national legislative service.

On Friday, Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command, which is in charge of training and equipping soldiers for war, said the Army has done a "very, very good job of sustaining troops through multiple combat deployments." He said the decision of whether to send soldiers on multiple deployments is made "on a case-by-case basis."

"There is not a cookie-cutter solution or rule that says this guy can handle two or three [tours]," he said. "It's about taking care of soldiers."

But there is not yet a complete explanation of why a combat soldier would go on such a rampage. Veterans groups and mental health advocates say there are many more questions that need to be answered before any motive can be assigned.

Many questions

Was he afflicted by a mental health problem resulting from prior deployments? Did his brain injury, which supposedly occurred during a vehicle crash two years ago, play a role? Was he properly screened for mental health issues before and after his other deployments?

Some fear that the stereotype of combat veterans as unstable at best and violent at worst will be resurrected. Many veterans spoke out against a headline about the shootings in the New York Daily News this week that read, "Sergeant Psycho."

Tom Tarantino, the deputy policy director at Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan of America, said that without the facts, "you have this wired mind-set in the public consciousness and immediately everyone goes to the 'Sergeant Psycho' thing. ... We need to try to make sense of this tragedy, and it's extremely difficult to do so. And that's the problem."

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