The Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier accused of killing 17 Afghan villagers this month has reported suffering from severe nightmares, flashbacks of war scenes and persistent headaches after his multiple combat tours, his attorney said Wednesday.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales told his legal team that he has long been waking with night sweats, often replaying memories of a grisly episode that he and his infantry company witnessed in Iraq several years ago, according to John Henry Browne, a civilian lawyer.
Browne’s comments amounted to the most detailed public portrayal so far of Bales’ state of mind in the months leading up to an incident in which the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier stands accused of committing one of the worst U.S. atrocities in the decadelong war in Afghanistan.
Military officials and witnesses have alleged that Bales left his base in the predawn hours of March 11 and methodically killed Afghan villagers, most of them women and children. He allegedly attempted to burn the bodies before returning to the base.
Browne, in an interview, did not acknowledge any wrongdoing by Bales, but the lawyer said his client told him that, on the night of the shootings, he returned to his base in southern Afghanistan with only a foggy memory of what had just happened. Bales, Browne said, remembered the smell of gunfire and of human bodies but not much more.
The lawyer stressed that Bales did not confess, as military officials have said, but seemed surprised when his weapon was taken away.
Bales, 38, is now being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., pending a full military investigation. He faces the possibility of the death penalty on charges of premeditated murder.
Military officials have declined to offer a public explanation for Bales’ alleged actions.
Browne, who met Bales for the first time last week, said his client described suffering symptoms strongly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his combat experiences.
“There was a time when everyone in the room was crying when he described what he saw,” Browne said of the meeting that he, partner Emma Scanlan and a military defense lawyer had with Bales.
Browne said the “horror of war” become a routine backdrop for Bales, who also reported “seeing bodies all over the place” and “putting body parts in bags” in Iraq.
Bales, who joined the Army in 2001, served three tours in Iraq, all with the same unit at Lewis-McChord – the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. His second tour with the Stryker brigade, when he reportedly experienced a particularly harrowing incident, took place from June 2006 through September 2007. Browne declined to discuss that episode, saying it was classified.
“It caused him tremendous depression and anxiety,” Browne said in a separate interview with The AP.
This episode was not previously disclosed publicly, but Browne has said Bales was upset by an incident on his current deployment, a few days before the Afghanistan massacre, when a fellow soldier’s leg was blown off.
Bales did not share the seriousness of his PTSD-like symptoms with his wife, Karilyn, because he did not want to worry her, Browne said Wednesday. In an interview with NBC News over the weekend, Karilyn Bales described her husband as a “very tough guy” who had shielded her from “a lot of what he went through.”
In a statement, a spokesman for Karilyn Bales said her husband had told her about headaches but that there was never any discussion of PTSD.
“It never occurred to Kari to ask her husband, ‘Are you having nightmares?’” the spokesman, Lance Rosen, said Wednesday. “If he was having them, I can understand that he might not want to tell his wife. It would worry her. Soldiers are trained to be stoical.”
Browne said Bales also attributed his headaches to a concussive brain injury he suffered in Iraq when the Stryker vehicle he was riding in hit a roadside bomb and flipped over. No one was killed, but Bales was unconscious for an unspecified period of time.
In addition to his concussion, Bales lost a portion of his foot as a result of unsanitary conditions in his Iraq base that led to a foot infection and then methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
Before leaving for Afghanistan in December 2011, Bales had been training to be an Army recruiter, Browne said. It was a role he was ideally suited for because of his longtime mentoring of younger soldiers – and he was told he could begin the new job soon because his unit wouldn’t be deployed again.
Bales told his legal team that he remained a loyal soldier when he was shipped out unexpectedly on a fourth combat tour, but was disturbed about the lack of a clear mission in Afghanistan, Browne said. As he and others in his unit sought to help the Afghan police secure the area, they fended off attacks from people who appeared to be civilians and Afghan allies.
“It was dispiriting,” Browne said. “He said he was really confused about why they were there.”