One by one, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales named each of the 16 Afghan civilians he slaughtered last year. But the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier could not explain why he turned his weapon on sleeping women and children.
“I’ve asked that question a million times since then,” he said in court Wednesday at Lewis-McChord. “There’s not a good reason in the world for why I did the horrible things I did.”
Bales, 39, confessed to the massacre as part of a plea agreement sparing him the death penalty for the massacre he carried out in two villages last year while serving with a Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
Army Judge Col. Jeffery Nance accepted the agreement and declared Bales guilty after the soldier spent several hours admitting to the offenses.
“Sir, I intended to kill them,” Bales told Nance when the judge asked what Bales planned to do when he walked armed and alone inside the homes of sleeping Afghans in the early hours of March 11, 2012.
In the best-case scenario for him, Bales, a father of two who used to live in Lake Tapps, would receive a life sentence with a chance for parole. Murder carries a mandatory minimum life sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Bales’ attorneys said his guilty plea was the first step in taking responsibility for the homicides. A sentencing trial is expected to take place in August.
“He’s very remorseful,” defense attorney John Henry Browne said.
Bales for the most part spoke in a steady voice as his wife, Kari, and other supporters sat behind him in court. His voice wavered a couple times when he named his victims. He used restrained, legal language to describe the slaughter. For instance, in describing his killing of a man named Mohammed Dawood, Bales said “I formed the intent to kill Mohammed Dawood and then did kill him by shooting him with a firearm. This act had no legal justification.”
He read a variation of the same paragraph 15 more times.
Bales learned the names of his victims from investigative reports and from wrenching witness testimony at a pretrial hearing in November. Survivors testified over a video link and described watching an American soldier murder their loved ones.
The Army had been preparing to bring several of the six people he wounded to Lewis-McChord to testify at Bales’ court-martial. The terms of his plea agreement could allow them to testify over video teleconferences at his sentencing instead of in person, Nance said in court.
In Kandahar, relatives of Bales’ victims have been advocating for the death penalty.
The killing spree started, Bales said, when he walked outside the Special Forces combat outpost where he was serving and encountered a grandmother in the village of Alkozai. They struggled inside her home – Bales didn’t say why, or what he was doing there – and then he decided he would shoot any Afghan he saw, including the woman. She was his first victim.
He killed four people in Alkozai and wounded six more in that village. Then he returned to his combat outpost, only to leave once more for nearby Najiban, where he killed 12 more civilians.
Bales’ attorneys over the past year have said the four-time combat veteran suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma from a concussive head injury. The soldier Wednesday did not discuss whether that influenced his behavior. Those factors likely will be raised at the sentencing trial.
Bales did, however, describe an environment that tolerated alcohol and steroid abuse in a combat zone, that was nurtured by soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group who were in charge of his outpost.
He was not working with his larger Stryker brigade at the time; his unit was broken into small components and assigned to Special Forces detachments throughout southern Afghanistan last year.
He testified that he obtained steroids from a Special Forces noncommissioned officer and used them three times a week to get “fit for the mission.” He also said he drank with soldiers at the base.
The military forbids service members from using either substance while they’re deployed. Bales said the steroids increased his “irritability and anger.”
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan said after the hearing that the effects of those substances were exacerbated by the effects of his past combat experiences. She was careful to say the alcohol, steroids and trauma were not “reasons” for the killings.
Still, she said, any military jury “can understand that Sgt. Bales is a person who wouldn’t have done this but for a set of conditions,” she said.
Bales was charged with 34 criminal offenses from his deployment last year with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. There were so many criminal counts that Nance took 50 minutes to read them and ask Bales if he understood each offense.
He pleaded not guilty to one count of trying to impede an investigation. The Army agreed to drop the charge.
Bales did not remember all of the crimes. He could not tell Nance why or how he burned the corpses of his victims in the second village he attacked.
“I remember that there was a lantern in the room. I remember there being a fire after that situation. I remember going back to the (outpost) with matches in my pocket. To tell you I remember picking it up and throwing it on a group of people, I do not recall that,” Bales said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646