For Suspect In Afghan Attack, A Praised Record

Play associated audio

There is still only sketchy information available about Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' recent experience in Afghanistan, but five years ago in Iraq, he was considered an excellent and upbeat soldier.

Bales is suspected of killing 16 unarmed Afghan civilians last Sunday. He has yet to be charged, and his civilian lawyers say they will meet with him at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to learn the facts of the case.

Friends and neighbors describe Bales as a dedicated husband and father, and they keep mentioning his "sunny" disposition. Bales' fellow soldiers tell the same story. Capt. Chris Alexander, Bales' platoon leader in Iraq, says he "always kind of had a smile on his face."

Saving Lives In Iraq

Alexander and Bales were in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, during the troop surge. Bales headed up a "fire team," a subunit in one of Alexander's squads.

"He was one of those guys that can just kind of joke around during downtime," Alexander says, and then get down to business when it was necessary.

They were part of a Stryker Brigade, deployed from Washington state's Fort Lewis. The Strykers are eight-wheel vehicles that are armored for combat, but still nimble enough for the tight quarters of urban warfare. Alexander says the vehicle's armor caused some soldiers to get complacent about keeping an eye out — but not Bales. One day in the city of Mosul, his attentiveness saved lives.

"A guy popped around the corner with a [rocket-propelled grenade]... [Bales] saw it right away before the guy launched, and he actually hit the guy and caused the round to go high, so it missed all of us," Alexander says.

Bales was decorated for good conduct, but he never received a medal for valor. He was nominated for one, after the Battle of Najaf in January of 2007, by Maj. Brent Clemmer, then captain.

'Always Positive'

Stationed in Washington, Clemmer has known about Bales' alleged role in the massacre for almost a week now, but he's been reluctant to talk to the news media. He agreed to talk to NPR if he wasn't recorded.

He recalls Bales as "a really good" non-commissioned officer and "one of those guys who was always positive." He underscores that point with a snapshot of Bales' unit. In a group of soldiers posed around a Stryker vehicle, Bales is the guy in the middle with the biggest grin.

His old platoon leader, Alexander, says he's heard the theory that Bales may have "snapped," but he says that's hard for him to picture.

"He had about the same stress level as any of the rest of us, and he seemed to handle it very well," he says.

Post-Traumatic Stress?

Still, that was 2007. Since then, a lot has happened to Bales. On his third Iraq tour, he was injured. He lost part of a foot and suffered an unspecified traumatic brain injury. Back in the U.S., he failed to get a promotion he'd been hoping for. Then he was told he had to go on a fourth combat deployment, this time to Afghanistan.

"I've talked to people who have done both Iraq and Afghanistan, and they say they'd pick Iraq any day of the week because Afghanistan is just so brutal," Alexander says. "Something just finally — his glass filled up, and that was it."

That's already shaping up as a possible legal defense. On Thursday, Bales' civilian lawyer made a point of introducing reporters to a psychiatrist who's made a career testifying about post-traumatic stress disorder in court.

But for many, that explanation isn't sufficient. One week on, Clemmer says he still can't get his head around the idea that Bales killed those civilians. He adds, "You can't forgive it if he did it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

WAMU 88.5

The Music And Legacy Of Motown

Motown founder Berry Gordy and director Charles Randolph-Wright of “Motown the Musical" join Diane for a conversation about the history of Detroit's famous sound.

WAMU 88.5

Will Montgomery County Go "Bottoms Up" On Liquor Laws?

Since Prohibition, Montgomery County has held the purse strings on liquor sales, meaning the county sells every drink from beer to bourbon to local bars and restaurants. But local business owners are pushing back from this system, claiming it lacks efficiency and leaves customers waiting. County officials say they are holding out for alternatives that protect those within the industry. We discuss both sides of the issue today.

WAMU 88.5

Exelon's Chief Strategy Officer On Its Proposed Takeover Of Pepco

Kojo chats with Exelon's chief strategy officer about the company's vision for electric service in the Washington region, and its argument for why its acquisition of Pepco is in the best interest of customers.

WAMU 88.5

Computer Guys And Gal

Another year is coming to a close and the Computer Guys And Gal are here to discuss this year's biggest technology news, including the growth of virtual reality and the "Internet of Things."

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.