In the weeks before Staff Sgt. Robert Bales slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians, junior-ranking soldiers around him grew concerned about his increasingly erratic behavior, including his assault of an Afghan contractor and his declaration that an Afghan soldier working with U.S. troops “is not a person.”
But those concerns about the Stryker soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord didn’t reach higher-ranking leaders at a small Special Forces outpost in southern Afghanistan.
The enlisted infantrymen who knew Bales best didn’t believe they could share their worries with their commanders, according to an investigation the Defense Department released Tuesday after a long public records fight with The News Tribune.
The 569-page investigation also shows that leaders at the outpost were not aware of Bales’ outbursts or of misconduct among other soldiers, including alcohol and steroid use.
The investigation, known as a “command climate report,” was intended to determine how much Bales’ superiors knew or should have known about the soldier before he committed the worst crimes of the Afghanistan war.
“In a healthy command climate, the command should have had much greater situational awareness of the discipline of its members,” wrote then-Brig. Gen. Ricky Waddell, who was asked to investigate Bales’ unit and his training after the rampage.
Bales, 42, served almost all of his Army career in a JBLM Stryker brigade — the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division — and went with it on three tours to Iraq before deploying with it to Afghanistan in November 2011. An Ohio native, Bales lived in Lake Tapps with his wife and children.
He pleaded guilty to 16 counts of murder in the March 2012 massacre in Kandahar province of Afghanistan, and was sentenced in August 2013 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Waddell wrote that Bales’ use of banned substances while deployed were red flags that could have alerted commanders about the soldier’s internal distress. But Waddell wrote that no one could have predicted the severity of Bales’ crimes.
In court testimony and written statements, Bales has been unable to explain what caused him to snap in the early hours of March 11, 2012, when he twice sneaked out of his outpost to kill Afghans in their homes.
“There isn’t a why; there is only pain,” he wrote late last year in an appeal for mercy that The News Tribune obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Army in March also rejected a clemency request Bales submitted to JBLM’s I Corps.
The documents released Tuesday represent the Army’s attempt to investigate whether anyone could have prevented Bales’ slaughter. Former Gen. John Allen commissioned the report immediately after the killings.
“This event and those killed and injured will never be forgotten,” Allen wrote when he assigned Waddell to conduct the investigation.
The News Tribune has been seeking the report since Bales was sentenced for the killings.
The Defense Department has released thousands of documents regarding Bales since his sentencing. The News Tribune wrote extensively last year about how an investigation found the killer displayed a complex personality to those he worked with and in conversations with his wife.
Reports also described a chaotic scene at the field hospital that treated Bales’ victims. And they revealed a Green Beret was kicked out of the Army for providing Bales with steroids about three weeks before the massacre.
But until Tuesday, Pentagon officials had turned down multiple News Tribune requests for the report that investigated the possible culpability of Bales’ superiors.
The most recent rejection came in late June. Officials cited an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act that allows the government to withhold information that could influence an ongoing law enforcement investigation.
The military changed course this summer after several journalism and open-government advocacy groups, including the Project on Government Oversight and Military Reporters and Editors, drew attention to its refusal to disclose its report on Bales’ command.
The report sheds new light on how an unusual assignment handed to the 700 soldiers in Bales’ Stryker battalion might have played a role in the military’s failure to spot signs of Bales’ instability and prevent his crimes.
Bales belonged to a conventional JBLM infantry battalion whose soldiers normally train together at their base south of Tacoma and fight together in a specific location during a deployment.
But that was not their mission in late 2011. Instead, Bales and other soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment were splintered across 48 locations in Afghanistan on assignments supporting small Special Operations teams.
As a result, Bales’ regular commanders who knew him well had almost no interactions with him that might have revealed signs of his distress.
“We know our guys best,” one of the JBLM officers told Waddell.
Waddell also found that some of the Green Berets at Bales’ outpost regarded JBLM infantrymen with “disdain.” The Green Berets came from the 7th Special Forces Group. They usually work in highly trained 12-man teams.
That frustration appeared to be mutual. Soldiers from JBLM told Waddell that they were “kept in the dark about (Special Forces) operations.”
For his part, Waddell did not trust the Green Berets he interviewed. He noted that they gave him self-serving statements that appeared intended to protect their careers.
“Where an enlisted soldier’s testimony conflicted with a (Special Forces) team member’s testimony, I generally considered the enlisted soldier’s testimony more reliable,” Waddell wrote.
Waddell wrote that the military began sending conventional infantry units to Special Operations assignments in Afghanistan in 2010. The idea was to extend the impact of Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Army Rangers by boosting their ranks with conventional forces that could provide security or strengthen patrols.
Waddell found that the dynamic often worked, but he focused most of his recommendations on suggestions to improve collaboration between troops that come from different cultures.
In Bales’ case, that should have included more focused training with Green Berets before the deployment and more frequent interactions with his command team from JBLM.
Special Forces soldiers must “lead junior (sergeants) and soldiers ... and give those soldiers the benefit of their training and experience,” Waddell wrote.
Waddell’s report notes that Bales had a strong reputation before his Afghanistan deployment. In fact, his JBLM command team chose him for the assignment in Kandahar province because he was considered to be the most capable soldier to handle it.
But in Afghanistan, the soldiers around him quickly developed a different opinion of him. Bales would joke that he wasn’t racist, “unless you count Afghanis or Iraqis.”
Others called him a “tool.” They noted that he often lost his temper.
“He’s a moody person,” one soldier told Waddell. “He would get mad if you didn’t do things his way.”
“Everyone knows Staff Sgt. Bales is the freakout type,” another said.
In February 2012 — a month before the massacre — Bales pummeled an Afghan worker who was bringing supplies to the base. No one reported the incident to the Special Forces command.
The altercation startled even the JBLM infantrymen who were considered close to Bales.
“Our guys knew better,” one told Waddell. “They knew better than to be hostile with the Afghans.”