From his Ohio hometown to sprawling Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Army Staff… (Spc. Ryan Hallock )
Reporting from Lake Tapps, Wash., and Norwood, Ohio
For those who grew up with him, Robert Bales seemed to have a place reserved on easy street. Captain of the football team and president of the sophomore class at his Ohio high school, Bales after just three years of college had an oceanfront condo in Florida. He was also pulling in more than $100,000 a year as a financial advisor.
His investment work ran into trouble, though, and when the Sept. 11 attacks came, Bales felt what friends said was an irresistible call. He enlisted in the Army — signed up for the hardest duty anybody could ask for, the infantry — and headed almost straight for Iraq.
"I thought, 'Jeez, man. That's crazy. You've got it all,' " said Steven Berling, a high school friend.
But Bales had long seemed fascinated by what led nations into combat. "I remember one day in AP [advanced placement] history class, Bobby and the teacher were going back and forth about old wars and … various historic battles," Berling said. "He must have been reading up on all that on his own."
In Iraq, Bales was a soldier "who really believed in it," his former platoon leader, Chris Alexander, said. "It was rare to find an E5 soldier who was as deep a thinker as he was.... He'd get into these epic conversations about the Middle East and our role."
Now, friends are trying to piece together how the gregarious 38-year-old staff sergeant could have become the tragic anti-hero suspected in the late-night massacre of 16 Afghan civilians — a crime that has prompted new questions about how much longer the U.S. can remain in Afghanistan.
For soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where Bales was based during three deployments to Iraq and one in Afghanistan, the events have been dumbfounding. Bales trained his men carefully, oversaw his patrols vigilantly, and treated Iraqi villagers with respect and good humor. That he could have snapped so precipitously is almost beyond comprehension.
There is sympathy for the financial problems, multiple deployments and violence that may have imposed unbearable stress, but also contempt for a soldier who may have put others in the path of potential violent reprisals.
"The picture that's being painted of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales — that 'There but for the grace of God goes any other American soldier' — this is amazingly offensive," said Bryan Suits, who hosts a Seattle-based KFI radio show popular with soldiers and veterans.
Suits, who served three Army deployments, said nearly all long-serving U.S. troops had similar stories of nightmarish deployments. "Everybody's been there. And this is the first time a guy has killed 16 civilians," he said.
But Bales' combat colleagues appear more mystified than angry.
"I know Bales. I worked with him for years. He was a great NCO," Alexander said. "And you don't go from being somebody like that to all of a sudden shooting unarmed people.... There's something more to it."
Longtime friend Michael Blevins, who grew up with Bales in Ohio, said almost the same thing. "I want people to know there is no way the guy I knew did this," he said. "You don't go from being a local hero to a monster."
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People from the working-class neighborhood of shady lanes and two-story panel homes in Norwood, Ohio, where Bales grew up said that, even early on, Bales seemed to feel it was his mission to protect the neighborhood.
"When Bobby was 10 or so, there were half a dozen teenagers talking loud and obnoxious in front of his house. He went outside and ran them off after knocking one of them into the bushes," Blevins recalled. "My mother watched the whole thing from her porch. When it was all over, Bobby walked across the street and said, 'I'm sorry they were talking that way and that you had to hear it.' "
Bales attended Ohio State University for three years and went to work as a financial advisor with several firms in Ohio, launching his own investment firm with his brother in Florida.
But according to a report from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Bales and his Ohio firm were the target of a major complaint from a client in 2000. In 2003, Bales and his partners were directed in arbitration to pay more than $1.2 million in compensatory and punitive damages for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and other charges.
Meanwhile, the World Trade Center attacks had occurred, and Bales abandoned the world of stocks and bonds for the Army.
Bales was stationed almost immediately at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, joining the 2nd Infantry Division's 3rd Stryker Brigade. Court records show he was charged in 2002 with criminal assault in a case involving a girlfriend; the charge was dismissed after he underwent anger management training.