TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - Robert Bales built a life around a call to arms. A call that emanated from the ashes of the World Trade Center in New York and took him to the mayhem of faraway Iraq and Afghanistan. A call he may have heard one time too many.
The 38-year-old U.S. Army staff sergeant suspected of gunning down 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, had struggled to make financial ends meet and was disappointed at being sent back into a war zone for a fourth time rather than an easier posting in Germany or Hawaii.
Bales was a high school football star from Ohio who enlisted in the Army after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. He married Karilyn Primeau in 2005 and soon they moved into a four-bedroom house near a clear Seattle lake. The couple had two children, but Bales was absent for three tours in Iraq, where he was commended for valor. His wife, a public relations executive, blogged enthusiastically about their life.
Today, his family has the lake house on the market for less than they paid for it and a second home, with a mortgage larger than its market value, has been abandoned for two years, a red notice from the city warning it is uninhabitable.
Bales was denied a longed-for promotion to Sergeant First Class in March 2011. Then his family missed out on the adventure they felt they deserved - a posting in Europe or Hawaii - when Sergeant Bales was sent to a fourth tour abroad, in Afghanistan.
In Iraq, he was celebrated and proud of the heroism of U.S. troops. “We ended up helping the people that three or four hours ago were trying to kill us,” he said in a 2009 Army publication describing the rescue of a downed helicopter that turned into a pitched battle, after which victorious U.S. troops gave aid to enemy casualties.
“That’s the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy,” he said.
But in Afghanistan something apparently went very wrong. Authorities believe he left a small camp of U.S. soldiers in the middle of the night Sunday, taking his rifle with him and massacring 16 civilians, mostly children, in two villages near Kandahar.
“Please keep (Staff Sergeant) Robert Bales in your prayers. I know his alleged crime is terrible, but he is not a terrible person. He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever served with,” Chris Alexander, an Army Captain who served in Iraq with Bales, said on his Facebook page shortly after Bales was identified as the shooting suspect.
Bales grew up in Ohio in the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood. A football player, he made the All-Division II team as a lineman in 1990, according the Cincinnati Post.
Bales got a two-year associates degree, the Army says. He moved to Florida, where he and his brother were directors at a company called Spartina Investments Inc, state records show.
His life changed course when Manhattan’s twin towers fell and the Pentagon was struck in the September 2001. Bales joined the army about two months later and was based at the Tacoma, Washington-area Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Though he won multiple decorations during his Iraq tours, including the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the soldier had some brushes with the law back home.
In 2002, he was charged with criminal assault, but the court deferred the charge for six months after Bales completed 20 hours of anger management counseling and stayed out of trouble for six months, the Tacoma News-Tribune reported. The charge was dismissed in February 2003, court records show.
Later that year he shipped out to Iraq for the first time.
The News-Tribune also said Bales was cited for a misdemeanor in 2008 after police reported a man left the scene of a single car rollover. Bales later told police he had fallen asleep behind the wheel, the paper said. He received a deferred 12-month sentence and paid a $250 fine, it reported.
The young soldier met his future wife, Karilyn Primeau, through an online dating service, his lawyer has said, and the Web is dabbed with their history, although access has been restricted to some personal sites.
An Amazon.com wish list for Kari Primeau, assembled in 2003 through the year of their marriage in 2005, has computer design manuals, books on cooking, courtship and pregnancy, and music from Dolly Parton to the synthetic pop of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The new Mrs. Bales blogged prolifically, including a “Babybales” tale of her pregnancy and childraising seen by Reuters.
“Yesterday as I was driving down the road, after dropping Bob off to leave for Iraq, I thought I felt the baby move for the first time,” she wrote in 2006.
Years later, in a blog cited by The New York Times, she described the frustration of Bales being passed over for promotion and her response: a wish list of postings, starting with “Germany (best adventure opportunity!), Italy (2nd best adventure opp)” and “Hawaii (nuff said).”
By this point, Bales had spent more than three years at war in three tours in Iraq, losing part of his foot and suffering a head injury in two separate incidents. His lawyer, Seattle attorney John Henry Browne - who made his name defending serial killer Ted Bundy - said the family had been told he was done with fighting. But last December he was sent to Afghanistan.
“He and his family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over,” Browne said. “Literally overnight that changed. So I think it would be fair to say that he and the family were not happy that he was going back.”
More than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has turned multiple deployments into a way of life for many soldiers. Some veterans advocates say the strain is too much, but the Army says it screens troops physically and mentally before sending them back in harm’s way.
The sergeant moved out to a small Afghan base with about 20 other troops early this year. Just over a week ago, he watched an explosion blow off one soldier’s leg, his lawyer said. Early last Sunday, he gathered his rifle, moved out into the night, and began shooting, killing nine children among 16 dead, authorities believe. Charges are expected in the next few weeks.
Bales’ wife and two children are being sheltered by the Army at Lewis-McChord. Bales sits in solitary confinement Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Browne said he did not know whether alcohol was a factor, as has been reported, and told Reuters that post-traumatic stress disorder was likely to be part of the defense. Any suggestion of problems in the marriage was “nonsense,” he added.
The couple’s finances, though, gave cause for worry. Their large house near Lake Tapps is up for sale at $51,000 less than they paid for it in 2005, offering it for $229,000, Zillow showed. “Short Sale” announced a realty web site.
A second home in the city of Auburn, about 10 miles to the north of their Lake Tapps home, was purchased by Karilyn Bales, then Karilyn Primeau, in 1999 for $99,500 and was remortgaged for $178,500 in 2006. That is the house that neighbors say has been empty for two years and is posted “Do not occupy.”
Edith Bouvette, 52, who knew the couple when they first lived there together, said she was shocked about Robert Bales.
“What I really remember is him in his uniform, his pants tucked inside of his boots,” Bouvette said. “He was crisp, clean. Military — and very polite military. When you talked to him it was ‘Yes, Ma’am’ - just a really, really nice guy, and it’s just a terrible shame.
“I blame part of this on the military. They never should have sent him back for that fourth tour.”
Additional reporting by Laura Myers in Seattle and Sarah Gross in New York; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jackie Frank