The graves of some of the 16 Afghan villagers killed in Afghanistan's… (Mamoon Durrani, AFP / Getty…)
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — Military prosecutors Wednesday painted a picture of increasing frustration for Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales — passed over for promotion at work, unhappy with his family — in the weeks before he allegedly killed 16 civilians in a middle-of-the-night shooting rampage in southern Afghanistan.
Questioning one of Bales' closest Army friends, 1st Sgt. Vernon Bigham, prosecutor Lt. Col. Joseph Morse repeatedly asked about Bales' expressions of unhappiness about much of his life, including the strict rules of engagement that prevented his unit from being "aggressive" with Afghans and his strong belief that he should have been promoted to sergeant first class just before the March 11 killings.
The prosecutor also zeroed in on Bales' negative statements about his home life, which U.S. officials have said could have been part of what motivated the attacks.
Bales, a 39-year-old veteran of four combat deployments, is the subject of a two-week preliminary hearing on accusations that he attacked four housing compounds in the villages of Alkozai and Najiban. Six people were wounded in addition to those killed. The Article 32 hearing will determine whether Bales should be court-martialed on charges of premeditated murder, which carry a potential death penalty.
Under direct examination by Maj. Gregory Malson, Bales' military defense lawyer, Bigham had characterized Bales, with whom he often watched football on weekends, as "a family man."
Morse, on cross-examination, called that into question.
"You said it was just sort of typical stuff he would talk about at home. But in fact, it wasn't that typical," he said. "He said some pretty disparaging things about his wife to you, isn't that right?"
Bigham, without much elaboration, said it was true. Earlier in the hearing, Sgt. 1st Class Clayton Blackshear also said Bales had complaints about his life at home. "He basically didn't care if he made it back home to them," Blackshear testified.
Karilyn Bales has sat in the front row of the military courtroom each day and has shown little emotion as devastating testimony about her husband has unfolded.
In an interview with Seattle's KING-5 television before the start of the proceedings, she said she has used her weekend visits with her husband as "family time" to share with their two children, ages 3 and 5.
"It all seems incomprehensible to me. This is not something he would do, not the Bob I know," she told the television station. "He shielded me from a lot of what he went through. He's a very tough guy."
Robert Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, has brushed off reports of domestic problems and ridiculed the idea that family troubles could play a role in a mass killing.
"To the extent that the Army prosecutors may present evidence that Sgt. Bales was supposedly having some marriage issues, and the fact that he was supposedly having some financial issues … in my opinion would have absolutely nothing to do with what the allegation is," Browne said in an interview on the eve of the hearing.
"I mean, you don't go out and kill women and children because you've got marriage issues and financial issues. That's ridiculous," he said. "The marriage issues I know of are no more than most families, particularly military families, go through with long deployments and separations."
Morse also questioned Bigham about the fact that Bales had lost his position of platoon sergeant as his unit embarked on its deployment to Afghanistan because he did not hold the rank of sergeant first class, a rank that platoon sergeants normally hold.
Bales until then had been doing the job as a staff sergeant, but was bumped down when another sergeant first class became available. Bales subsequently failed to make either of the next two promotion lists, the last of which came out in March.
"I know that he really wanted to make the list.… I thought he would make it, and he didn't," Bigham testified.
"He felt like it was a demotion, and he took it pretty hard?" Morse asked.
"Initially yes, sir," Bigham replied.
"Success in the Army was something that was very important to Sgt. Bales … he was kind of competitive?" Morse asked.
"He was competitive, sir," Bigham said.
The prosecutor also asked whether Bales was unhappy about the rules of engagement observed by the unit in which he was temporarily serving, which Morse suggested called for less aggressive contact with the enemy than what Bales was accustomed to with his previous unit.
"Sgt. Bales expressed a distinct difference between how 3rd Group operated and how 7th Group operated, and he actually liked working under 3rd Group better, and that's because 3rd Group was more aggressive, and 7th Group was more passive?" the prosecutor inquired.
In questioning by defense attorney Malson, Bigham drew a positive picture of Bales as a good noncommissioned officer who had earned praise from his superiors for keeping his soldiers in a condition of readiness for battle.
"I thought he was doing an outstanding job," Bigham said.