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Bales on night of killings: “I thought I was doing the right thing”

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on Nov. 5, 2012 at 8:41 am |
November 5, 2012 4:04 pm

3:30 p.m. update: A peer of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales simply did not believe Bales when he made a 2 a.m. visit on March 11 saying he had shot Afghan villagers that night, and planned to leave their base a second time to kill more before sunrise.

“I’ve just been to Alkozai (a village) and I shot up some people,” Bales told Sgt. Jason McLaughlin, McLaughlin testified today.

“No you didn’t, Bob,” McLaughlin replied.

A sleepy McLaughlin thought “it was ridiculously out of the realm of possibility,” that Bales could have left Village Stability Platform Belambay that night to massacre Afghan civilians. That’s why he didn’t react when Bales returned to McLaughlin’s room saying he intended to hit another village.

An hour later, McLaughlin took his post at a guard tower and learned that a previous detail had heard shots from Alkozai about 1:30 a.m. Worse, two Afghan soldiers were approaching McLaughlin about 3 a.m. with a report about an American soldier leaving their outpost.

Suddenly, Bales’ plans sounded like something real. He worked over the last thing Bales told him.

Bales “grabbed my hand,” McLaughlin said. “He was like, take care of my kids. I was like, Bob, take care of your own kids.”

McLaughlin was the fourth soldier to testify at today’s Article 32 hearing for Staff Sgt. Bales. Three of the witnesses have suggested that Bales was upset about a March 5 attack that severely wounded a Navy explosive ordnance technician. Bales wanted to hit the enemy hard, Sgt. 1st Class Clayton Blackshear said, and was disappointed that the soldiers had waited to gather resources and intelligence.

Bales also visited Blackshear late on March 10, just before he allegedly started his killing spree. At the time, Blackshear just wanted to go to sleep.

They talked about Bales’ wanting more responsibility on patrols, and Bales’ dissatisfaction with his home life.

Later, Blackshear saw Bales return to Belambay about 4:45 a.m. on March. McLaughlin was there to apprehend him with Cpl. David Godwin.

Bales “just had a ghostlike look – the absence of emotion. It’s almost like someone’s not there,” Blackshear said.

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1 p.m. update: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ kept saying “I thought I was doing the right thing” when fellow soldiers took him into custody in the hours after he allegedly slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians in March.

He returned to his combat outpost soaked in blood and indignant that a soldier he knew well might have reported him missing that night, Cpl. Dave Godwin told an Army investigative officer today.

Godwin was one of the two soldiers who ventured out of Village Stability Platform Belambay to apprehend Bales in the dead of night on March 11. Godwin had served with Bales for more than two years and had been drinking alcohol with him on the night of the killings.

“This is bad, real bad,” Godwin said Bales told him while he waited for a flight out of Belambay. Godwin recounted the events of the night at Bales’ pretrial Article 32 hearing, an event that could lead to a death-penalty court-martial for the 39-year-old Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier.

Godwin’s testimony revealed how Bales’ alleged killing spree caught his fellow soldiers off guard. Godwin was one of several American soldiers who had guard duty at Belambay that night, but only Afghan soldiers spotted Bales coming and going on his alleged trips to different villages that night.

Word eventually reached commanders that an American soldier was missing, and that wounded Afghans were showing up at a nearby base reporting that a U.S. soldier had shot them.

Commanders found Bales by turning a surveillance camera from nearby Forward Operating Base Zangabad in his direction. They found him on his return from the second village.

Prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse charged that Bales carried out the killings with “chilling premeditation.”

Testimony from Godwin and Special Forces Master Sgt. Clifford Uhrich showed that soldiers at Belambay had come into enemy contact at least twice prior to Bales’ alleged massacre, and some soldiers at the base had easy access to alcohol and other stimulants.

Uhrich was among five soldiers wounded by an improvised explosive on March 5. On another patrol, soldiers came under fire by an insurgent shooting from a belt-fired machine gun.

Uhrich was the top noncommissioned officer at Belambay. He was evacuated out of the country for a traumatic brain injury.

Bales, Godwin and another Lewis-McChord soldier drank alcohol with Uhrich’s successor on the night of that attack, Godwin said today. The replacement sergeant first class also crushed a pill and snorted it, Godwin said.

Bales had been taking steroids, and had showed off the pills to Godwin. Godwin said Bales lost his temper more easily during their deployment to Afghanistan than he did on their earlier tour to Iraq. On that assignment, Bales was known for working well with Iraqis.

Defense attorney Emma Scanlan today circled in on Godwin’s characterization of Bales as different in Afghanistan from their earlier missions together. She appears to be setting up a defense for the staff sergeant by focusing on facts that could explain how he might have lost control of himself on his fourth combat tour.

Also today, prosecutors and their witnesses are making small digs at Bales’ home life. Morse noted that Bales had complained about his wife, Kari.

Scanlan asked Godwin about how Godwin said Bales was not a “woman hater.”

Godwin responded that Bales did not have problems with women, “just his wife.”

Kari Bales is in court today, sitting just behind her husband.

Bales has been silent and attentive all morning.

Godwin said the killings infuriated him, especially when Godwin learned the victims included nine children. Prior to then, Godwin had hoped to find out that Bales had only attacked military age males.

Godwin said he briefly considered helping Bales destroy evidence, such as following through on Bales’ request to “bleach” the blood-soaked combat pants he wore on the night of the killings. Godwin said Bales made that request while Godwin watched him, awaiting a flight that would take Bales away from Kandahar.

“It’s really hard,” Godwin said. “You have a guy and whether you like him or not, you’re supposed to be loyal to him. That’s what the military preaches.”

Godwin has been reduced in rank for drinking alcohol while receiving combat pay. He continues to serve in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, but he has been reassigned to a different battalion than the one with which he and Bales deployed last December.

Godwin remembered Bales as wearing a sheet tied around his neck when he turned himself in on the night of the killings. Bales was not wearing his body armor, but he had a helmet, night vision goggles, an M4 rifle, a grenade launcher and a pistol.

Godwin had heard reports that Afghans had been tying sheets around their necks to make it harder for NATO surveillance to spot them.

“It was kind of surreal,” Godwin said, remembering the night of the killings. “I feel like Bob, excuse me, Sgt. Bales, was doing this to better us.”

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Staff Sgt. Robert Bales “was deliberate and methodical” in slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians in four homes on the night of March 11, a prosecutor argued today.

Prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse said the Army intends to seek the death penalty if the case proceeds to a court-martial.

Bales’ sat quietly through the first hour of his Article 32 evidence hearing. He kept his hand over his mouth as prosecutors played a silent surveillance video that they say shows Bales walking back to Village Stability Platform Belambay on the night of the killings.

The video shows a caped figure slinking along mud walls as he approaches the Special Forces Base. Two soldiers confront him at the gate, and seize the figure’s weapons.

Prosecutors said the Bales drank Jack Daniels and Diet Pepsi with at least two others soldiers the night of the killings. They said he acted funny that night, but “was lucid, coherent and responsive” overall.

Bales began the hearing by hugging his wife, Kari. They whispered to each other before Bales took his seat next to his defense attorneys.

Prosecutors said Bales had complained about his life at home on the night of the killings. He said he looked up to the Special Forces he met on his deployment, he didn’t mind if he lost his life.

Will update at lunch.

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Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is about half an hour from appearing in court for the first time at his Article 32 evidence hearing.

Over the weekend, his wife told ABC News she is sticking with her husband as he faces charges that he murdered 16 Afghan civilians in March during his deployment with Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

“My husband did not do this. Did not do this,” Kari Bales told ABC News. “I truly believe from the bottom of my heart that my husband is not involved.”

Hal Bernton at The Seattle Times this weekend also learned that one of the six Afghans Bales allegedly wounded in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province later died under coalition care. Here’s his preview to today’s hearing.

And here’s our take, walking up to the hearing with a look at how unusual testimony from Afghan witnesses could play out.

I’m heading into the courtroom and I will be posting updates to this blog throughout the day.

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