Nearly every time I write about the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who murdered 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar Province, I get calls from readers who argue the Army should drop its charges against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
They feel that Bales was a hero for serving with honor on three previous deployments to Iraq with Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. They believe his actions can be explained somewhat by the psychological toll those tours of duty took on the 39-year-old father of two. (They can find info about how to help Bales here.)
They’re on my mind this week both because I’m expecting to hear Bales’ confession Wednesday at a hearing where an Army judge is due to hear his guilty plea, and because of the tough questions raised in an editorial this week penned by an attorney who recently represented a soldier who murdered five fellow U.S. service members at a Baghdad combat stress clinic four years ago.
The Army failed convicted murderer Sgt. John Russell, his attorney writes, because doctors did not respond adequately to the signs of distress he showed on his third combat tour. Russell in May 2009 received rude treatment from one doctor, and a misdiagnosis from another, attorney Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld wrote for the Erie Times-News.
Vandeveld was sympathetic to Russell’s victims in his piece. Yet he seemed to argue that Russell deserved something less than the life sentence without the possibility he received in court at Lewis-McChord last month. Expect a similar take from Bales’ team this week and at a later hearings.
Read the full editorial at this link. Here’s how Vandeveld brings home his article:
“As the tears and, sometimes, the bitter laughter, of the family members proceeded in vain streams, my role was to remain impassive and expressionless, though my guts ached and I felt as though I could dissolve in tears were I constitutionally capable of tears. There have been so many poetic accounts of the residue of grief that persists after any death, and in particular homicides that cry out for some cosmic justification where there is none, that the genre might even be called a cliché, evoking anger and outrage until the next one is reported.
“But here the suffering was almost something one could touch, and grief of a sort that will never go away so long as it exists in the memories of the victims’ survivors — and in the mind of my client, whom the military, at the end of a misbegotten war, failed. The last days of May passed one final time for all of us. Let us not allow another May to pass, however, without doing better by our soldiers and our veterans. Indescribable suffering will be our legacy if we do not.”
Russell’s judge heard testimony from witnesses who were sympathetic to the soldier, as well as a tough cross examination of the psychiatrist whom Vandeveld argued misdiagnosed his client.
Still, the judge handed down the toughest sentence he could – life without parole – after hearing more than a week of testimony.
“You are not a monster,” Army Judge Col. David Conn said at Russell’s sentencing, according to Reuters news service. “But you have knowingly and deliberately done incredibly monstrous things.”
“Sgt. Russell, you have forced many to drink from a bitter cup. That cup is now before you,” Conn told Russell.
The Bales court-martial appears to be heading in a similar direction. Like Russell, Bales plans to plead guilty to the killings and then fight for a chance at parole at a sentencing trial later this year.
Russell and Bales are different in a few ways. Russell, for instance, had a poor reputation in his unit. His peers and commanding officer thought he was just hanging around to earn an Army retirement. Russell sought help when he started to show signs of stress, such as swearing at an officer.
Bales, by contrast, had a solid reputation as a soldier. His company sergeant was trying to help him win a promotion to sergeant first class. No one has said publicly that Bales showed any signs of turmoil in Afghanistan, aside from possible trouble at home and a focus on earning that promotion.
They’re linked by the unthinkable murders they carried out in uniform, Russell against his fellow service members, and Bales against sleeping women and children. Soon enough, Bales’ judge will have to once again balance a soldier’s service to his country with the pain he caused.