4:50 p.m. update: A medic who treated the first wounded Afghans from Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ alleged massacre closed today’s testimony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, hinting at the horror that we’re likely to learn about in coming days.
Maj. Travis Hawks could not pay much attention to the first victim he saw. She was a child with gunshot wounds to her head, and she was totally unresponsive.
Instead, he prepared for more casualties from the village of Alkozai who were showing up at Forward Operating Base Zangabad on March 11.
“In a mass casualty, you want to focus your efforts on the critically wounded you know you can save,” said Hawks, who was the top surgeon for Fort Wainwright’s 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division at the time of the killings.
He saw five patients that night. The girl, Zardana, ultimately survived the night and Hawks gave her urgent care once he treated the other victims.
“She was still alive at that point, so we decided it was incumbent upon us to do everything we could to help her,” he said.
Another teenage woman had gunshot wounds to her chest. She would not let male Army doctors touch her until a female soldier talked with her.
Still, she would not let the Army doctors look at wounds below her waist. Later, Hawks said doctors at a larger Army hospital found wounds to her groin and buttocks.
One older male patient, Haji Mohammed Naim, had a gunshot wound to his neck.
A boy, Rafiullah, had a grazing wound across his right thigh.
And a younger boy, Sadiqullah, had a seemingly innocuous wound to his ear and the back of his head. It turned out to be more serious than Hawks initially thought, and the boy started vomiting while he awaited a medical evacuation flight out of Zangabad.
Hawks said the Army chose to keep all of the patients within its care when it learned that their wounds might have been caused by a U.S. soldier. The victims were evacuated to a better hospital with more resources in Kandahar.
Bales allegedly left his base – Village Stability Platform Belambay – twice in the early hours of March 11, first attacking villagers in Alkozai and then killing more Afghans in the village of Najiban. He’s accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians that night.
He’s due back in court tomorrow for the fourth day of an evidence hearing. Afghan witnesses are expected to start testifying on Friday.
Belambay is a small Special Forces outpost about 20 kilometers from Zangabad. Zangabad at the time of the attack was the headquarters for a battalion in Hawks’ brigade.
The victims from Alkozai apparently stuck with Hawks. A peer checked up on them during their stay at the NATO hospital in Kandahar. Hawks himself visited Zardana in April just before his brigade returned to its post in Alaska.
2:40 p.m. update: U.S. Army criminal investigators could not reach the scene of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ alleged massacre in Kandahar Province’s Panjwai District for three weeks because Afghan and American leaders considered the area too dangerous for them to show their faces.
In between, Afghans living in the four compounds Bales allegedly attacked withdrew their belongings and scraped away smatterings of blood to clean up their homes, according to an Army Criminal Investigative Command agent.
Special Agent Matthew Hoffman acknowledged that evidence at the scene could have been degraded, but his team obtained bullet casings that matched weapons Bales reportedly carried during the March 11 killings.
Hoffman also had evidence Afghan criminal investigators gathered on the day of the killings, such as photographs of blood stains that matched dark blotches in the homes that Hoffman saw on his trip to the villages of Alkozai and Najiban on April 2.
Hoffman described elaborate security the Army provided when Afghan and U.S. commanders finally struck a plan to get his team to the scene of the alleged killings.
Hoffman’s CID team rolled out in armored Stryker vehicles with one platoon of American soldiers, a platoon of Afghan soldiers, a team of U.S. combat engineers who searched for buried bombs, a separate group of U.S. mine sweepers with canines and two helicopters that stuck with the six-person evidence-gathering squad throughout the day.
Hoffman said the agents and soldiers anticipated an attack. American surveillance cameras had spotted insurgents laying improvised explosive devices on the route to Najiban in the weeks after the massacre.
“We were fully expecting to be attacked at any time,” he said. “We just didn’t know how long we’d have on the ground.”
10 a.m. update: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ leaders in his Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade gave him an especially demanding assignment in Afghanistan last winter because they believed he was among their best soldiers, his company first sergeant said in court today.
“We needed to put our best guys” with a Special Forces team at Village Stability Platform Belambay, 1st Sgt. Vernon Bigham said today.
Bigham’s testimony reflected the high regard soldiers held for Bales before the Army sent him to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. as an accused mass murderer of Afghan civilians in March.
Up until then, soldiers looked at him as “an old school” noncommissioned officer who kept his troops focused and deserved a promotion.
“I was trying to groom him to make that next step,” Bigham said. “I thought he was very capable.”
Bales is in court for the third day of testimony in an evidence hearing that could result in a death-penalty court-martial for the four-time combat veteran. He’s accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians in two villages outside Belambay.
Bigham testified over a video teleconference link from Kandahar Air Field to a courtroom in Lewis-McChord. He is the senior noncommissioned officer in B Company of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. The battalion belongs to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Bigham said the Army gave his battalion an unusual mission when it sent the soldiers to Afghanistan last December as part of an attachment to Special Forces detachments across southern Afghanistan. It was an entirely new assignment for infantry soldiers who were more accustomed to working with each other and close to their commands.
Instead, Bigham’s company with some 160 to 200 soldiers had troops at 14 different sites. As a result, Bigham had less oversight than normal on the soldiers he trained for a yearlong deployment in southern Afghanistan.
“We gave up control of our guys” to the Special Forces teams, Bigham said.
His testimony revealed Bales’ focus on earning a promotion to sergeant first class. That’s a significant promotion for enlisted soldiers, requiring a promotion board and a rigorous selection process.
Bales did not make the cut for the 2011 sergeant first class promotion list.
Bigham was setting Bales up to make the 2012 list by giving him additional responsibility as platoon sergeant – a role that often goes to a sergeant first class instead of Bales’ rank of staff sergeant.
In the months before the deployment, the Army sent the 2nd Battalion more soldiers, including additional sergeants first class. Bigham had to return Bales to his traditional assignment as a squad leader over about eight soldiers instead of about 40 in a platoon.
Bigham went to bat for Bales to keep his extra responsibility, but was overruled.
“I thought it was too late in the game – too close to the deployment – to make those kinds of decisions,” he said.
Bales was disappointed.
“He felt like he was getting fired,” Bigham remembered. “I had to sit him down and told him you’re not getting fired. There’s someone who’s more senior than you. It’s part of the process.”
Two soldiers who served with Bales at Belambay said he had the promotion on his mind on the night of the alleged massacre. They said Bales was checking to see if he made the promotion list the night. It was due out in March 2012, but the soldiers could not get a sustained Internet connection to get Bales an answer.
Before leaving Lewis-McChord in December, Bigham said Bales seemed excited about the coming deployment. He frequently had his soldiers on the firing range getting ready for the mission.
Bales did not confide in Bigham concerns about past head injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder – two conditions that Bales’ attorneys have suggested could have influenced his behavior in Afghanistan and should have kept him at home. Bigham said he would not have sent Bales to Belambay if Bales had told his first sergeant that he suffered from PTSD or a traumatic brain injury.
Bales and Bigham were close at their home station. They hung out together, and talked about their families.
“I looked at Sgt. Bales as a family man. He talked about his kids all the time,” Bigham said.
But Bales also told Bigham about discord in his marital life. He’s now the third soldier to testify that Bales complained about his wife, Kari. Kari has heard this testimony sitting in court behind her husband for the third straight day.
Bigham last saw Bales at Kandahar Air Field where Bales waited to be sent to a military prison. Bales seemed remorseful.
He pointed to the 2nd Infantry Division patch he and Bigham both wear to identify their units.
“I know this means something to you guys,” he told Bigham, according to a statement a prosecutor read and Bigham confirmed.
Bales also seemed to want to confess to Bigham. Bigham wouldn’t let him.
“He invoked his rights, so I didn’t want him to talk about those things to me,” Bigham said.
Today’s witness list for the third day of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ Article 32 hearing includes several evidence experts and a first sergeant who knew Bales well.
So far, attorneys are moving quickly through their witnesses. They’re ahead of schedule.
Bales is accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians in two villages near Village Stability Platform Belambay in the early hours of March 11.
His attorney, John Henry Browne, has suggested in news interviews that the Army had little forensic evidence against Bales.
We likely will get a sense of that evidence in testimony over the next day or two from the Army Criminal Investigative Command agent who oversaw the case, a DNA examiner, a trace examiner and a firearm examiner.
First Sgt. Vernon Bigham also in the witness list at the defense request. Bigham was the top noncommissioned officer in Bales’ unit, B Company of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. The battalion belongs to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
As far as we know, Bigham was not assigned to Belambay because witnesses have said that Bales was the most senior noncommissioned officer from his battalion at the outpost.