A world away from the isolated camp in the plains southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers seized homemade bombs and weapons caches in nighttime raids, Robert Bales’s other life was crumbling.
The Army sniper’s home in Lake Tapps, Washington, where wife Karilyn once made Impossibly Easy taco pie and watched Mickey Mouse Clubhouse with his young daughter, was to be sold for $50,000 less than what they’d paid. They’d already defaulted on another home, scheduled for public auction in 2009 after the couple fell $15,644.19 behind in payments. Bales had failed to get the promotion that stood to ease their financial stress.
Sometime before dawn on March 11, the Army alleges, the decorated veteran hiked to two villages and killed 16 Afghanistan civilians including women and children in their homes. A U.S. official has said family stress and alcohol may have combined to prompt the shootings. Friends, neighbors and experts in post-traumatic stress disorder contend that something else must have driven a man they know as unfailingly polite to such horrific acts.
“It is PTSD plus something,” said Harry Croft, a former Army doctor who has reviewed about 7,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorders. “To kill innocent women and children indicates to me that something happened during these killings that was simply more than the product of PTSD,” said Croft, who’s the author of “I Always Sit with My Back to the Wall,” a book aimed at people who suffer from PTSD.
“He was not thinking of his family,” Croft said. “I do not think he was thinking about the children. I do not think he was thinking about the women. I do not think he was thinking about the reprisals.”
Karilyn Bales, in a statement today, extended her family’s condolences to the victims and said she can’t shed any light on how “such a terrible thing” happened. “What has been reported is completely out of character of the man I know and admire,” she wrote.
The polite neighbor who answered “yes, ma’am” also had a dark side, once completing court-ordered anger counseling to resolve an assault charge. A high school football player who grew up in a Cincinnati suburb, he was unfulfilled in early attempts to establish a direction in life. Bales left college without finishing and helped start an investment firm in Florida that closed after 16 months.
The military he entered less than two months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks gave him a purpose. It also burdened his young family, as four combat deployments lasting more than 1,000 days left Bales’s wife alone caring for their children, Quincy, now 5, and Bobby, 2, according to a blog she kept chronicling struggles with housework and appointments. Their stresses were compounded by $506,250 in mortgage debt they took on in 2006 at the height of the U.S. housing boom, records show.
The nation’s military families are taking the brunt of repeated deployments as Middle East engagements continue more than 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 107,000 of 570,000 active-duty troops have been dispatched more than three times since Sept. 11, military figures show. About 21 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought medical treatment from 2004 to 2009 were diagnosed with PTSD, the Congressional Budget Office said in a February report.
While none of that can excuse or explain the murder of women and children, former soldiers say it does show why an all-volunteer force prosecuting a decade of war may show strains.
A soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where Bales was based, threatened to blow up the barracks over the weekend in the latest incident at a station under scrutiny for suicides, killings and other crimes. Military police took the unnamed suspect into custody, according to Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman for the installation.
“We’re going on 11 years since this started,” Mike Courts, a retired army colonel who is now a council member in the nearby city of DuPont, said in an interview last week. “I think we’re seeing the results of repetitive deployments.”
John Henry Browne, Bales’s lawyer, called his client “in general very mild-mannered” with “a very strong marriage” at a news briefing last week, denying that alcohol or marital stress were factors. The possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder and the adequacy of his screening for a concussive head injury will be examined, according to the lawyer.
The U.S. Army will probably file “really bad” charges on March 22 against Bales, Browne said in an interview today.
“We know what they are going to say -- it’s something really bad,” Browne said in Lansing, Kansas, near the Fort Leavenworth base where Bales is detained. The two men planned to meet today and tomorrow, said Browne, whose only previous contact with Bales was a brief phone call last week.
Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, declined today to comment on Browne’s remarks except to say “look to Kabul for release of the charges,” a reference to the U.S. Army’s operations there. Kirby said Bales also has been assigned military counsel.
Bales, 38, grew up in Norwood, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb of 19,000, on a residential street near a United Dairy Farmers’ plant. He graduated from Norwood High School in 1991.
The youngest of five brothers, Bales was a guard and linebacker on the football team, said Michael Blevins, a neighbor who considered Bales his role model.
“He was always the one to stand up for the little guy,” Blevins, 35, said, remembering that Bales spent time with a neighbor boy who had cerebral palsy.
Sitting 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.”
Bales starred on Norwood’s team before he lost his starting middle linebacker position as a junior to freshman Marc Edwards, according to “Odyssey: From Blue Collar, Ohio to Super Bowl Champion,” a 2010 biography of Edwards by Aaron M. Smith. Edwards would go on to play for the New England Patriots and other National Football League teams.
The NFL player would remain friendly with Bales, crediting his teammate as an early mentor who helped him learn the position. “That was huge motivation for me,” Edwards is quoted as saying in the book. “This guy was a junior and one of the stars of the team and he’s sucking up his pride to help me out.”
After high school, Bales first studied physical therapy and then decided he wanted to get into finance, Blevins said.
He 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 went to 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.
In 1997, Edwards and Bales, identified in the book as a Columbus, Ohio, stock broker, spent a weekend together at the PGA Memorial Tournament in Columbus watching golf, “drinking a couple beers,” and singing at a dueling piano bar, according to the book.
“People were watching us make complete idiots of ourselves, but we were having an absolute ball,” Edwards says in the book. “We were talking to girls, we were dancing. It was fun.”
Bales started Spartina Investments Inc., based in Doral, Florida, in 1999, with Edwards and Bales’ brother, Mark. It dissolved after 16 months, according to state records.
“Marc had a brief and very limited business relationship with Mr. Bales,” said Marina Ein, a spokeswoman for the former NFL player. It ended “as a result of marketplace forces at the time and other issues,” and “did not affect the friendship,” she said.
In a statement, Edwards called Bales “one of my oldest and best friends” and said the tragedy “has saddened my wife and me greatly and caused us great concern on Bob’s behalf.”
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.
Bales’ enlistment in the Army, on Nov. 8, 2001, set him on a new course. He won medals for superior performance and spoke proudly of his combat experiences. He spent nine years at Lewis-McChord, the largest base in the western U.S., in the Second Battalion, Third Infantry Regiment of the Third Stryker Brigade.
Sense of Duty
“He wanted to be a soldier,” said Tim Burgess, 59, a retired warehouse worker who was a neighbor of Bales’s in Auburn, Washington, and remembered him talking about it with a sense of duty more than “rah-rah-rah.”
Court records show Bales was arrested at a hotel in Tacoma, Washington, 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 return a call seeking comment on the case.
Bales, listed in his driver’s license at the time as five feet, 9 inches (1.75 meters) tall and 230 pounds (104 kilograms), pleaded not guilty. He underwent 20 hours of anger management counseling and the charge was dismissed, according to Tacoma Municipal Court records.
He left for combat in Iraq a year later, serving from Nov. 1, 2003, to Oct. 1, 2004, the Army says.
The next year, he married Karilyn Primeau, according to the blog his wife later set up. She now works for Amaxra Inc., a Redmond, Washington, business communications company, according to the firm. Her LinkedIn profile lists her as an associate technical project manager and says she earlier worked for Washington Mutual, the Seattle lender that filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was taken over by JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“The Bales Family Adventures” blog and the companion “BabyBales” site were closed to public view 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.
The couple lived in Auburn at a house Karilyn owned for about a year. They moved when Karilyn became pregnant, according to neighbor Burgess. At the time, in 2005, Bales was nursing a war-related injury to his foot and walked with a pronounced limp, he said. Bales’s lawyer has said he lost part of his foot.
“He wanted to go back over there,” Burgess said. “His mission was to rehabilitate himself, to get back into another combat situation and get over there.”
Karilyn’s dad, who drove a brand-new Ford diesel pickup truck, took the couple out on his boat, Burgess said. Bales bought a new Ford Mustang, he said.
Edith Bouvette, 52, remembers when Bales once helped an elderly neighbor fix her roof. “He was always, ‘yes, ma’am, yes sir,’” Bouvette said. “Total military.”
The Baleses bought a four-bedroom home with 2.25 bathrooms in Lake Tapps, Washington, in 2005 for $280,000, county property records show. They rented the other home to neighbors, according to Burgess, vice president of the local homeowners association.
On June 19, 2006, Army records show, Bales returned to war, where his service coincided with the surge in Iraq ordered by George W. Bush.
With Karilyn’s baby on the way, the couple borrowed $506,250 on two residential properties in October 2006, public records show -- $178,500 on the Auburn house and $327,750 on the Lake Tapps home. Karilyn had a power of attorney to sign on her husband’s behalf, the records show.
While it’s unclear what his wife was earning, the debt was a stretch on the salary of a staff sergeant -- more than $60,000 a year, based on military pay scales.
“I’ve rarely seen staff sergeants who lived in $300,000 houses,” said John S. Odom Jr., a retired Air Force judge advocate and partner in Jones, Odom & Politz LLP law firm in Shreveport, Louisiana. “Other than the fact that his job was as an infantryman carrying a rifle and supervising a squad of infantrymen, he isn’t different than if he had been a lineman for the local power company.”
Daughter Quincy arrived Dec. 11, 2006, Karilyn Bales wrote in her blog. As Quincy, 7 pounds, eight ounces, was getting her first bath, Karilyn’s cell phone rang. “It was Bob calling from the airport in Kuwait!!” she wrote. “It was so good to hear his voice. I told him how the birth went and he got to hear Quincy squeaking in the background.”
Returning home with the baby a few days later, her phone rang again. It was Bales; he was in Dallas and would be home soon. “We would be a family,” she wrote.
The next month, in January 2007, Bales and his unit fought in the Battle of Najaf near the Euphrates River. They found villagers and family members of Iraqi fighters in the aftermath of the battle, also known as the Battle of Zarqa, which left 250 insurgents dead, according to a 2009 report by the Northwest Guardian, the military-authorized newspaper at his base.
They piled the injured on litters. Some had lost limbs or eyes, according to the report.
“We’d go in, find some people that we could help, because there were a bunch of dead people we couldn’t, throw them on a litter and bring them out to the casualty collection point,” Bales was quoted as saying.
His second deployment ended in September 2007. A year later, Bales was charged in the municipal court of a town near his home after a single-vehicle rollover that damaged property, AP reported. He told police he fell asleep at the wheel and paid a fine to get the charges dismissed, AP said.
Bales’s wife wrote of decorating Easter eggs, swimming at a local pool and trying to keep up with dishes and laundry. “Quincy is a much better egg hunter than last year, which was really fun to witness and enjoy with Bob,” she wrote.
In August 2009, Bales left for Iraq for a third time. “I had bad dreams and a pit in my tummy from missing Bob,” Karilyn wrote. “Thankfully I got a text message from Bob at 2pm, he was on the plane to Maine.”
Two months later, the couple’s Auburn house was scheduled to be auctioned at the entrance to the King County Administration Building.
The Baleses owed $15,644.19 on the house plus $1,333.46 in trustee’s fees, according to the auction notice. The auction subsequently was canceled without explanation. A Bank of America Corp. filing in King County in August 2011 said the couple was $16,978 in arrears on the rental property.
‘Do Not Occupy’
The home, visited yesterday, is a discolored light blue. Tire rims, an oil pan and part of a drivetrain rust outside in the driveway. A “Do Not Occupy” sign from the Auburn building department is displayed on the door, along with other signs in the window warning against unauthorized entry.
The homeowners association president, Bob Baggett, said the couple had lapsed on making $120 annual maintenance dues payments for at least two years.
“I suspect they fell on hard times financially,” Baggett said. “It could have been a matter of priorities.”
In March 2011, with their household further expanded by son Bobby, Bales failed to win promotion to sergeant first class, Karilyn wrote in her blog. The family was “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.”
Bales, with 10 years of military service, would have received about $431 more a month for a total of $5,673 a month in salary if he had been promoted to sergeant first class, according to a pay calculator on the website of Army Times Publishing Co.
They hoped to make the best of the situation by going on an “adventure” instead -- with assignments in Germany, Italy or Hawaii their top options, Karilyn Bales wrote.
“Who knows where we will end up,” she said. “I just hope that we are able to rent out the house so we can keep it. I think we are both still in shock.”
Instead, in December, Bales left for Afghanistan, the Army says.
“He and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over, and then literally overnight that changed,” lawyer Browne told reporters last week.
The accused soldier’s job in Afghanistan was providing “force protection” for a Special Forces compound, according to a U.S. official familiar with the case.
The Panjwai plain where he was based is densely dotted with villages whose local mullahs helped found the Taliban movement in 1994. The district has remained a Taliban stronghold since NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, took control in heavy fighting in 2006.
U.S. forces there typically conduct joint patrols with the Afghan National Army in the villages surrounding their bases, seizing homemade bombs, weapons caches and hashish, according to ISAF news releases over the past seven months.
On March 12, villagers in southern Afghanistan buried 16 men, women and children shot dead in their homes after the killings by the accused soldier later identified as Bales.
Back at home, Karilyn had approached realtor Phillip Rodocker to list their house in Lake Tapps as a “short sale,” for less than the mortgage balance, according to Rodocker, who listed the house. Purchased for $280,000, it went on the market March 12 for $229,000. Karilyn called on March 13 and asked to cancel the sale because of a “family emergency,” Rodocker said.
Bales’s friends say they don’t want to believe the charges are true. Blevins said he exchanged Facebook messages with the soldier about three weeks ago in which Bales said he was looking forward to his son’s 3rd birthday.
“They always say you never know somebody, what’s in their heart, but that kid’s got the biggest heart anywhere there is,” said Blevins’ sister Michelle Caddell, who also lives on the street where he grew up. “I can’t see that kind of person living inside there, unless something completely destroyed his whole entire being.”