Afghan Suspect’s Life Marked by Honors, Personal Setbacks

March 18 (Bloomberg) -- Robert Bales, the U.S. Army staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians, was a decorated veteran who also experienced wounds in service and setbacks at home.

He once spoke of saving civilians when his infantry unit in the Iraq war found villagers and family members of Iraqi fighters after the 2007 Battle of Najaf, also known as the Battle of Zarqa, that left 250 insurgents dead. The American soldiers turned from fighting to saving lives, according to a military account.

“I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day, 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,” Bales said in an interview for the 2009 report.

Yet women and children were among the 16 victims of the March 11 shootings in two villages in southern Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials who on March 16 identified Bales, a 38-year-old married father of two, as the suspect. The killings threaten to erode U.S.-Afghan relations, drain remaining U.S. and European support for the war and add pressure to speed troop withdrawals.

Along with a career marked by military honors, a portrait emerged of Bales as a man who had faced financial troubles and brushes with the law. He was a soldier who had been injured twice in Iraq, spurned when he sought a promotion and deployed to Afghanistan even though his family opposed him going into combat again.

Spurned for Promotion

The Army turned down a request from Bales for a promotion last year, his wife Karilyn wrote March 25 on a blog she maintained as an online family diary. She said her husband “was very disappointed after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends.”

“The Bales Family Adventures” blog and the companion “BabyBales” site were closed to public view yesterday, after Robert Bales was identified as the shooting suspect. The sites were linked to others associated with Karilyn Bales and an e-mail that uses her maiden name. Karilyn Bales didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Family Barbecues

Reporters swarmed around Bales’s home in Lake Tapps, Washington, a rural, wooded area near Seattle, about 27 miles (43 kilometers) northeast of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the soldier’s home station. A neighbor, Paul Wohlberg, said he was stunned to hear what authorities were saying against the man he’d sometimes join for family barbecues or pizza.

“He’s a good guy, just one of the guys,” Wohlberg said. “He loved our country; I’m sure he still does.”

Wohlberg, who said he’s lived next door to Bales for five years, described the soldier’s family as friendly yet reserved. He said he sympathized with Bales, who served three tours in Iraq before being sent to Afghanistan in December, because of the pressures of war.

“There are a lot of things that go on in war that are not good,” Wohlberg said. “A good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Bales was flown March 16 to a U.S. military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Army Colonel James Hutton said in a statement. Bales was being held in a medium-security facility in his own cell and no charges had been announced in the killings.

‘That’s Not Bobby’

Bales grew up in Norwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. He was a 1991 graduate of Norwood High School, Superintendent Robert Amodio said in a telephone interview.

Michael Blevins, 35, said he lived across the street from Bales and considered him “a role model.” He said Bales played guard and linebacker on the high school football team.

Sitting yesterday on the porch of his mother’s house across from the former Bales family home, Blevins kept saying of the killings in Afghanistan: “That’s not Bobby.”

After high school, Bales attended the College of Mount St. Joseph, a private, liberal arts school in suburban Cincinnati, for two semesters in 1991 to 1992, said Jill Eichhorn, the college’s communications manager.

Bales also attended the Ohio State University in Columbus from 1993 to 1996 and studied economics, though he didn’t graduate, university spokesman Jim Lynch said in a telephone interview.

Before enlisting, Bales lived in Jensen Beach, Florida, according to the Army, and records there show he registered to vote as a Republican in St. Lucie County.

Business Failure

While in Florida, Bales started Spartina Investments Inc., a Doral, Florida-based company, with his brother, Mark, and a third man in May 1999, according to state records. The company dissolved 16 months later. Manuel Arthur Mesa, listed in the records as an attorney for the company, didn’t return a phone message yesterday.

Bales enlisted on Nov. 8, 2001, less than two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the Army statement.

In 11 years in the Army, Bales has been awarded the Army Commendation Medal six times, the Good Conduct Medal three times and Meritorious Unit commendations twice for superior performance of exceptionally difficult missions, the Army said in the statement.

He was deployed to Iraq for 12 months in 2003-2004, 15 months in 2006-2007, 10 months in 2009-10, and arrived in Afghanistan in December, the Army said.

Generally ‘Mild-Mannered’

A U.S. official briefed on the Afghan killings said the stress of the fourth combat deployment, a troubled marriage and alcohol use may have combined to provoke the killings. John Henry Browne, a Seattle attorney who said he was hired to represent the soldier, disputed the allegations.

His client is “in general very mild-mannered” with “a very strong marriage,” Browne said at a news briefing last week, denying that alcohol or marital stress were concerns.

Court records show Bales was arrested at a Tacoma, Washington, hotel in 2002 for investigation of assault in a case Browne said involved a woman he dated before he married his wife, according to the Associated Press. The lawyer didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on the case.

Bales pleaded not guilty, underwent 20 hours of anger management counseling and the charge was dismissed, the news service said. Three years ago, a hit-and-run driving charge was dismissed in another town’s municipal court after a single-vehicle rollover that damaged property, the AP reported.

Head, Foot Injuries

Bales was sent to Afghanistan after sustaining a concussive head injury and losing part of a foot in tours in Iraq, Browne said. The possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder and the adequacy of his screening for the head injury will be examined, according to the lawyer.

The soldier’s family was disappointed when he was sent overseas for a fourth time, according to Browne.

“He and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over, and then literally overnight that changed,” Browne told reporters last week.

Bales’s yellow, two-story home looked this weekend as if it had been left quickly. Trash was piled on the porch. The soldier’s family was moved onto the base for their safety, the military has said.

Property records show Robert and Karilyn Bales bought the home in 2005 for a listed sale price of $280,000; it was assessed at $227,100 this year. The four-bedroom, 2.25-bath, with an attached garage was built in 1990.

“It’s kind of scary to think someone could go off their rocker like this,” said Alissa Cinkovich, 45, a seven-year resident of the neighborhood.

Wife’s Work

Karilyn Bales, who goes by Kari, works for Amaxra Inc., a Redmond, Washington-based business communications company, according to Kerri LeRoy, operations and human resources manager. Her LinkedIn profile lists her as an associate technical project manager.

“She does have our full support and we ask that you respect her privacy,” LeRoy said.

In Leavenworth, Kansas, the arrival of Robert Bales created little stir in a town amid rolling hills and farm pastures that has known more than its share of headline-producing figures.

Its military prison has housed Charles Graner, a U.S. Army reservist convicted for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, in 2003-2004 and William Calley, imprisoned for his role in the March 16, 1968, My Lai massacre of civilians during the Vietnam War. The civilian federal penitentiary once held Prohibition-era gangsters Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

“We’ve had a history of well-known detainees dating back many decades,” Leavenworth Mayor Mark Preisinger said yesterday, as the town held its St. Patrick’s Day parade and the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter held a corned beef and cabbage lunch.

Doubts in Afghanistan

In southern Afghanistan, top officials such as Kandahar provincial Governor Tooryalai Wesa have backed the U.S. military’s account of the attacks by a single gunman. Local residents and Afghan legislators sent to investigate by the parliament say they don’t believe one soldier could have produced such carnage.

“This organized, violent attack on civilians was not committed by a single American soldier, but by several of them,” Sayeed Mohammed Akhund, one of the five members of parliamentary team, said in a phone interview. “Our findings show different types of weapons had been used. How can one guy attack three different houses and kill 16 civilians?”

To contact the reporters on this story: Peter Robison in Seattle at; James Nash in Washington at; Alison Vekshin in San Francisco at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at; Mark Tannenbaum at