SEATTLE, (AFP) – The US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghans during a shooting rampage was described by those who knew him as “level-headed” and may have snapped under stress, his lawyers said.
The suspect, identified as 38-year-old US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, had served three combat tours in Iraq — where he was wounded twice — and was on his first deployment to Afghanistan at the time of the killings.
Whisked out of Afghanistan to Kuwait in the days after the attacks, Bales was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on Friday, where US officials said he was being held in “pre-trial confinement.”
The US Army said Bales was being kept in “special housing” in his own cell, but no details have been released on a trial or even the charges to be brought against him.
“Public reports that Sergeant Bales’s supervisors, family and friends describe him as a level-headed, experienced soldier are consistent with information gathered by the defense team,” his lawyers said in a statement Saturday, saying it was still “too early” to determine what caused the attack.
Civilian attorneys John Henry Browne and Emma Scanlan, along with military defense counsel Major Thomas Hurley, indicated they planned to spend “several days” meeting with Bales next week.
“Sergeant Bales’s family is stunned in the face of this tragedy, but they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services,” they added.
But Browne also suggested his client and that he may have developed post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, from his combat experience.
According to the attorney, his client got angry about a serious injury that a comrade sustained the day before the massacre, but held no animosity toward Muslims.
PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that has afflicted more than 200,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is marked by flashbacks or nightmares, a tendency toward emotional detachment and a sense of hyper-arousal.
But Bruce White, a California defense attorney and retired Marine colonel, argued that using PTSD as part of a legal defense strategy could be “difficult,” although he pointed out that “it can be significant” in the sentencing phase.
Legal expects warn, however, that the standards of proof for insanity are very high in military courts.
Meanwhile, friends and neighbors told local media Bales was a trusted soldier.
Kassie Holland, a family friend, told the Los Angeles Times that Bales and his family seemed “very normal.”
“He was always really gentle with his kids. He was full of life and seemed like a happy guy for the most part,” Holland said as news rocketed through the blue-collar towns around Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma.
Bales allegedly left his base in the southern province of Kandahar before sunrise on Sunday, entered a nearby Afghan village and opened fire, killing men, women and children.
One of the worst atrocities committed by US forces in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion over a decade ago, the incident plunged US-Afghan relations to an all-time low.
Ties were already badly damaged after Americans burned Korans last month, sparking a wave of deadly anti-American protests, and an earlier video that showed US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban militants.
Several websites containing pictures and stories about Bales, including a 2009 Defense Department page, were taken down by the time his identity was revealed Friday, but some versions of the Web pages could still be accessed, shedding light on his military career.
According to a cached online article dated February 2009 from the official US Army website, Bales participated in one of the bloodiest clashes of the Iraq war — a January 2007 battle against a messianic Shiite sect in southern Iraq known as the Soldiers of Heaven.
In the 15-hour engagement, according to the article, 250 fighters were killed, all enemy — and Bales said he was proud his unit “discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants and then afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us.”
“I think that’s the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy, someone who puts his family in harm’s way like that,” Bales said.
Bales, who joined the army less than two months after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, was also upset because he did not believe he would be deployed to Afghanistan after his extensive Iraq duty, his lawyer said.
A US official told AFP that Bales was believed to have been drinking prior to the incident, a violation of US combat rules.
The New York Times quoted one official who said Bales may have “just snapped” due to a combination of stress and tensions with his wife, though Browne has rejected reports of his client’s marital problems.