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Afghan witnesses describe horror of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' attack

Three children are among those who testify at U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' sentencing hearing, describing gruesome details of his attack that killed 16 villagers last year in Afghanistan.

August 20, 2013|By Rick Rojas
  • Military prosecutors said Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was a man driven by troubles at home with his marriage and finances — and regrets about the direction of his career — who set out to kill as many Afghans as he could.
Military prosecutors said Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was a man driven… (Spc. Ryan Hallock / U.S.…)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The 5-year-old boy was dwarfed by the witness stand and his voice barely registered on the microphone as he told a military jury of the nightmares he continues to have after an American soldier went on a rampage through his Afghan village, killing his father.

"I'm always fearful," the boy, Khan, said through an interpreter. "What did I do wrong against Sgt. Bales that he shot my father?"

On Tuesday, as the sentencing phase began in the court-martial of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, prosecutors not only described in graphic detail the carnage of the early morning attack last year, but also set out to portray the lasting ramifications for the victims' families more than a year later.

As part of a deal that would spare him from the death penalty, Bales pleaded guilty in June to killing 16 Afghan civilians and injuring several others.

As jurors heard testimony before deciding whether to sentence him to life in prison or allow the opportunity for parole, prosecutors said he was a man driven by troubles at home with his marriage and finances — and regrets about the direction of his career — who set out that morning to kill as many Afghans as he could.

In laying out the government's case, Lt. Col. Joseph Morse, a prosecutor, said that Bales was irritated by his leaders, thinking that he could have made better decisions and wishing that he was in a role of authority or had trained to join the Army Special Forces. He said Bales "expressed to others that he could be equal to any Special Forces soldier."

Morse said that Bales got anabolic steroids from another soldier and took them with the intent to "get huge and to get jacked."

Hours before the March 11, 2012, attack, prosecutors said, Bales felt as though he'd been "blown off" as he vented to a superior about his career and issues with his wife back home. He "felt inadequate as a soldier and as a man," Morse said.

Armed with weapons, Bales took off, first to the village of Alkozai, "to show what it meant to take action," prosecutors said. He then proceeded to a second village, Najiban.

During the course of the attack, prosecutors said, he entered compounds belonging to peaceful families, people who had no connection to the Taliban or any form of opposition. He set off a frenzy. Children sought cover as he ransacked rooms, throwing dishes and knocking over shelves.

Prosecutors said he shot indiscriminately, including at women and children, often from as close as a yard away. Prosecutors described gruesome scenes: A woman who was grabbed by the hair and slammed into a baby rocker. Another who had pieces of her husband's brain and skull on her hands after he was shot. An elderly woman who didn't die immediately after being shot, prompting Bales to crush her head with his boot.

When Bales was later taken into custody, prosecutors said, blood had seeped through layers of clothing to his skin. He even cracked a joke.

On Tuesday, the 5-year-old boy was among several Afghan witnesses, and one of three children, to testify. At several points, the judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, discouraged prosecutors from asking questions meant to elicit emotional responses. "I'm very uncomfortable with these, 'How does this make you feel?' kind of questions," he said.

One witness, a boy of about 12 named Sadiqullah, swiveled in his chair as prosecutors asked him whether he cried after being shot in the ear ("yes") and whether he bled ("yes"). He also remembered seeing his sister getting shot and hearing her cries.

Another witness, a man named Samiullua, described the lingering effects of the attack on his teenage son.

"He wakes up at night with nightmares," he said. "He thinks the Americans are chasing him." And his daughter — a bright girl, he said — had been shot in the head, left with severe brain injuries. "She's no longer the same person. Her life is not the same."

Mohammad Haji Naeem, the patriarch of the family who lived in the first compound struck in the attack, cursed at Bales, who showed little emotion in court. Naeem, 60, had been shot in the jaw and the neck. "My life has changed dramatically," he said. "I have no earnings."

He said he stutters now when he speaks and his hands are almost useless because of nerve damage. "He can't pick up a simple thing, his hands are so weak," his son would testify later.

When Morse asked Naeem about another of his sons, who was killed, the father fell silent. He covered his face with his hand and stood up to walk away. He couldn't answer the question.

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