In the weeks before Staff Sgt. Robert Bales slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians, junior-ranking soldiers around him had grown concerned about his increasingly “erratic” behavior, including his assault of an Afghan contractor and his declaration that an Afghan soldier working with U.S. troops “is not a person.”
Those concerns, however, did not reach higher-ranking leaders at a small Special Forces outpost in southern Afghanistan because the infantrymen who best knew Bales did not believe they could share their worries with their commanders, according to an investigation the Defense Department released Tuesday after a long public records fight with The News Tribune.
The 569-page investigation found that leaders at the outpost also were unaware of misconduct among other soldiers that included drinking and steroid use.
Bales abused both alcohol and steroids during the deployment. Soldiers noticed that the substances affected his behavior.
Bales pleaded guilty to 16 counts of murder and was sentenced in August 2013 to life in prison without parole
“In a healthy command climate, the command should have had much greater situational awareness of the discipline of its members,” wrote then-Brig. Gen. Rick Waddell, who was asked to investigate Bales’ unit and his training after Bales’ March 2012 massacre in Kandahar province. Waddell has since been promoted.
Those incidents were red flags that could have alerted commanders about Bales’ internal distress, although Waddell wrote that no one could have predicted the severity of Bales’ crimes.
Bales, an Ohio native, pleaded guilty to 16 counts of murder and was sentenced in August 2013 to life in prison without parole. He served almost all of his Army career in a Stryker brigade based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. He served three tours in Iraq before leaving for Afghanistan in November 2011.
In court testimony and written statements, Bales has been unable to explain what caused him to snap in the early hours of March 11, 2012, when he twice sneaked out of the outpost called Village Stability Platform Belambay to kill Afghans in their own homes.
“There isn’t a why; there is only pain,” he wrote late last year in an appeal for mercy that The News Tribune obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents released Tuesday represent the Army’s attempt to investigate whether anyone could have prevented Bales’ slaughter. Former Marine Gen. John Allen, who was the U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time, commissioned the report immediately after the killings.
Until Tuesday, Pentagon officials had turned down multiple requests for the report, which investigated possible culpability of Bales’ superiors.
“This event and those killed and injured will never be forgotten,” Allen wrote when he assigned Waddell to conduct the investigation.
The News Tribune has been seeking the report since Bales was sentenced for the killings.
The Defense Department has released thousands of documents regarding Bales since his sentencing. Those documents showed that the killer displayed a complex personality to those he worked with and in conversations with his wife. Reports also described a chaotic scene at the field hospital that treated Bales’ victims. And they revealed that a Green Beret was kicked out of the Army for providing Bales with steroids about three weeks before the massacre.
But until Tuesday, Pentagon officials had turned down multiple requests for the report that investigated the possible culpability of Bales’ superiors.
The most recent rejection came in late June. Officials cited an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act that allows the government to withhold information that could influence an ongoing law enforcement investigation.
The military changed course this summer after several journalism and open government advocacy groups, such as the Project on Government Oversight and Military Reporters and Editors, drew attention to its refusal to disclose its report on Bales’ command.
Everyone knows Staff Sgt. Bales is the freakout type.
Soldier to investigator
The report sheds new light on how an unusual assignment handed to the 700 soldiers in Bales’ Stryker battalion may have played a role in the military’s failure to spot signs of Bales’ instability and prevent his crimes.
Bales belonged to a conventional infantry battalion that normally trains together at home and fights together in a specific location during a deployment.
But that was not their mission in late 2011. Instead, Bales and other soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment were splintered all over Afghanistan on assignments supporting small Special Operations teams.
As a result, Bales’ regular commanders who knew him well had almost no interactions with him that may have revealed signs of his distress.
“We know our guys best,” one of the JBLM officers told Waddell.
Waddell also found that some of the Green Berets at Bales’ outpost regarded JBLM infantrymen with “disdain.” The Green Berets came from the 7th Special Forces Group. They usually work in highly-trained 12-man teams.
That frustration appeared to be mutual. Soldiers from JBLM told Waddell that they were “kept in the dark about (Special Forces) operations.”
Where an enlisted soldier’s testimony conflicted with a (Special Forces) team member’s testimony, I generally considered the enlisted soldier’s testimony more reliable.
Brig. Gen. Rick Waddell
For his part, Waddell did not trust the Green Berets he interviewed. He noted that they gave him self-serving statements that appeared intended to protect their careers.
“Where an enlisted soldier’s testimony conflicted with a (Special Forces) team member’s testimony, I generally considered the enlisted soldier’s testimony more reliable,” Waddell wrote.
Waddell wrote that the military began assigning conventional infantry units to Special Operations assignments in Afghanistan in 2010. The idea was to extend the impact of Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Army Rangers by boosting their ranks with conventional forces that could provide security or strengthen patrols.
Waddell found that the dynamic often worked, but he focused most of his recommendations on suggestions to improve collaborations between troops that come from different cultures.
For Bales’ case, that should have included more focused training with Green Berets before the deployment and more frequent interactions with his command team from JBLM.
Special Forces soldiers must “lead junior (sergeants) and soldiers … and give those soldiers the benefit of their training and experience,” Waddell wrote.
Waddell’s report noted that Bales had a strong reputation before his Afghanistan deployment. In fact, his JBLM command team chose him for the assignment in Kandahar province because he was considered to be the most capable soldier to handle it.
But in Afghanistan, the soldiers around him quickly developed a different opinion of him. Bales would joke that he wasn’t racist, “unless you count Afghanis or Iraqis.”
Others called him a “tool.” They noted that he often lost his temper.
“He’s a moody person,” one soldier told Waddell. “He would get mad if you didn’t do things his way.”
“Everyone knows Staff Sgt. Bales is the freakout type,” another said.
In February 2012 – a month before the massacre – Bales pummeled an Afghan worker who was bringing supplies to the base. No one reported the incident to the Special Forces command.
Ashton reports for The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. Twitter: @tntmilitary