The Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who allegedly massacred Afghan civilians in March faces new charges that he abused steroids and consumed alcohol at an outpost in Kandahar Province.
The new charges against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales are in addition to 16 counts of murder that could net him the death penalty if his case proceeds to a court-martial.
In addition, the Army on Friday accused him of burning corpses, attempting to destroy evidence and assaulting an Afghan man a month before the killings in the Panjwai District of southern Afghanistan.
The lesser misconduct charges of substance abuse raise the possibility that Bales was under the influence of mood-altering steroids that he obtained at the Special Forces outpost where he was stationed this spring.
His lawyers on Friday received 5,000 pages of government documents from the Army’s investigation. One of his lawyers said the muscle-building but illegal steroids came from other service members at the Panjwai outpost.
John Henry Browne, Bales’ lead attorney, said the way Bales received the steroids and the drugs’ known side effects could play a role in his defense.
“If the government has a case, and I’m still not convinced they do, then obviously his mental state will become an issue,” Browne said.
Bales initially faced 17 counts of homicide; the Army on Friday dropped one count because its investigation determined that one victim’s name was duplicated on the first reports from the March 11 incident.
That discrepancy has been a conflict since news of the killings broke. At one point, people watching the case closely speculated that one of the female victims was pregnant when she was killed.
“The first report isn’t always the best report,” said Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, spokesman for the I Corps at Lewis-McChord.
Unnamed military officials have leaked information for months suggesting that alcohol was a factor in the killings. Also, in April, PBS reported that steroids were found in Bales’ living quarters.
Such details have been used as possible explanations of how Bales, a respected combat veteran with three tours in Iraq behind him, could have snapped and killed civilians.
The 38-year-old Lake Tapps resident, who is married with two children, was on his fourth deployment with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Bales allegedly slipped out of his outpost where he was supporting Special Forces and killed the Afghans in two separate villages. The Army alleges he burned 10 of the victims.
Emma Scanlan, an attorney on Bales’ defense team, said witness statements suggest Bales consumed a “moderate amount” of alcohol with other service members on the day of the killings – an amount that should not have influenced his behavior.
“He is not an alcoholic, and the idea that the alcohol he used that day fueled this incident is laughable,” she said.
As for steroids, the Army does not test for their use as frequently as it does for marijuana. A steroid analysis costs $240, compared with $8 for marijuana, according to a March release from North Carolina’s Womack Army Medical Center.
Still, the Army’s most recent published survey on steroid use showed 2.5 percent of soldiers admitted to using them, an increase from previous reports.
Dan Conway, a civilian lawyer who specializes in military cases, recently defended a soldier from Fort Drum, N.Y., who was accused of using steroids in Afghanistan. Conway learned the drugs are easily available outside NATO military bases in Afghanistan, and readily accessible to service members.
Some soldiers favor steroids because of the perception that they can provide an edge in combat even though they come with a risk for long-term health degeneration and mood swings.
“Steroids are cheap over there, and you can get them right outside the gate,” Conway said.
Conway was skeptical that a “roid rage” defense would be enough to sway a court-martial panel made up of veteran Army officers and noncommissioned officers.
But he said steroid use could be a factor in convincing the panel that Bales did not plan the killings, as long defense attorneys connect the use to other stresses Bales might have been experiencing.
“Any information you can gain that tends to affect (Bales’) ability to premeditate the offense is helpful,” Conway said. “Given the mental health issues and now the substance-abuse issues, this is going to be more for the defense to clarify.”
Conway last year defended Pfc. Andrew Holmes, one of four Lewis-McChord soldiers who were convicted in connection with the killings of three Afghan civilians in 2010. Their case became known as the Stryker kill team.
Stjepan Mestrovic, a war-crimes expert who testified at another of the kill team courts-martial last year, said Bales’ alleged steroid and alcohol abuse points to a failure in leadership at his base in Afghanistan.
“Those things are prohibited, and the Army has rules for testing and enforcing those standards,” said Mestrovic, a professor at Texas A&M University.