Kari Bales and her two young children stayed hidden in plain sight at the Daffodil Parade on April 14. They were among about a dozen people waving at the crowd from a float entered by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 91 in Tacoma.
Despite the international coverage of their plight, only two friends in the crowd recognized the wife and two children of the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who’s charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians, said Elmer Clark, the VFW post commander.
Clark made the arrangements for the Bales family to ride the float – one of many ways the post is wrapping its arms around family members during their nightmare that began seven weeks ago today.
The children, a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, got a kick seeing Ronald McDonald, Spider-Man and a firetruck at the parade staging area, Clark said. And Kari Bales remarked how much fun the family was having.
“They loved it,” Clark said.
The parade provided a welcome respite for a family whose lives have turned topsy-turvy. Kari Bales and the children were hurriedly moved from their Lake Tapps home onto Lewis-McChord over concerns they might be targets for retaliation when Robert Bales’ name went public March 16, five days after the massacre.
Members of the VFW post on South Union Avenue near state Route 16 have a close relationship with the Bales family that started several years before the 38-year-old Stryker soldier gained notoriety around the globe.
Bales occasionally visited the post when home, held several events for his unit there and persuaded a dozen soldiers in his unit to become post members.
“He’s a good guy,” said Clark, who also commands VFW posts throughout Pierce County and one in Yelm. “It’s hard to believe (the allegations against him).”
The post commander has remained in contact with Kari Bales since her husband’s arrest and requested that proceeds from an annual dinner that traditionally pay for VFW outreach programs go instead to the Bales family.
The April 7 dinner, which honored the VFW’s state commander and president, raised slightly more than $2,000. The money will go to the family, not Bales’ legal fund, Clark said.
VFW officials said they’re simply carrying out their mission, even if it involves a military family thrust into the brightest of spotlights amid allegations of the most serious war crime committed by a U.S. soldier in the decade-long conflict.
“It’s helping other veterans or families that have a need,” said Tom Darling, the veteran organization’s state chaplain. “We have done a lot of things like this in the VFW.”
Clark ran the idea for the dinner by Carlos Alameda, the VFW’s state commander, who gave his full support. Alameda said regardless of whether Robert Bales is guilty, his family will suffer.
‘They are the collateral damage,” said Alameda, who was introduced to the staff sergeant at an event before he deployed. “They will need it all. They will need more than that.”
Clark said his post is planning another benefit for the family and is accepting donations for them at its post building.
Family spokesman Lance Rosen wrote in an email to The News Tribune that the VFW is doing the right thing for soldiers and their families.
“The support they’ve shown for the Bales family at this hard time is an act of kindness and a much appreciated blessing,” he wrote. “It means a lot to Kari.”
Kari Bales has declined interview requests from The News Tribune.
Clark said Bales got involved in the post after returning from his second of four deployments with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in September 2007. At the soldier’s request, the post organized gatherings for his platoon prior to its third and fourth tours of duty that started in August 2009 and last December, respectively.
The post delivered 150 stockings filled with toys and candy to children in Bales’ unit during a Christmas party in December 2009 organized by a family support group. The unit was in Iraq at the time.
Bales recruited 12 soldiers into the post, Clark said. Bales was readily approached by junior soldiers, the post commander said, and “he was just an all-around nice guy to everybody.”
Bales is currently jailed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Unnamed military officials have said he snapped after drinking alcohol at his base in southern Afghanistan and enduring the stress of his fourth deployment and problems at home.
Bales’ civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, has said Bales didn’t recall the incident and had only two sips of alcohol provided him that night. Browne said Bales also was exhibiting symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Clark said Bales did drink at events at the post home, but “I’ve never seen him out of line.”
Criminal records show the soldier had four brushes with the law involving alcohol.
Bales never talked or appeared to be under undue stress, the post commander said.
“He was rather surprised that he was going the fourth time,” Clark said of the deployment to Afghanistan after three in Iraq. “That’s a lot to ask of anybody.”
In December, Clark and another couple affiliated with the post provided box lunches to 50 soldiers in Bales’ unit before they boarded the bus to the plane that would take them to Afghanistan. Clark recalled Bales telling him to continue doing good work.
Clark said Bales sent him one email from the combat zone, about three weeks before the massacre. Bales described working with Special Forces to establish a local police force. He used an expletive to describe his living conditions.
“He wished he was home,” Clark said about what was written in the email. “It was a lousy place.”
Clark declined to relate direct passages from the email, saying they may jeopardize Bales’ defense.
“I think he deserves a fair trial like everyone else,” Clark said.
Clark said he got a “lump in his stomach” when word spread that a 38-year-old staff sergeant from Lewis-McChord was accused of committing the rampage. There are few staff sergeants that age, and Clark had a suspicion Bales was implicated and that “something went horribly wrong.”
Clark said he got “violently ill” when his suspicions were confirmed a week later.
He made numerous attempts to reach Kari Bales and finally got in contact with her four days later. He said she talks regularly with attorneys and speaks with her husband by phone once a week. She tells her children that their father is on a temporary duty assignment.
“They just don’t understand right now why they don’t see Daddy on the computer, on Skype, because he used to Skype once a week,” Clark said.
Clark said he most recently spoke with Kari Bales on Wednesday after her return from a two-day trip to Fort Leavenworth.
She told Clark she was greeted by the base commander after landing. She was able to spend a couple of hours with her husband both days, Clark said.
She later shared with Clark that her husband is doing “pretty well” and that he maintains having no memory of the events of March 11. Clark said Robert Bales was released from solitary confinement earlier this month.
“She said she was so happy to spend time with him,” Clark said.
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