Calm and Compliant U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, WASH. — The U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 civilians in a nighttime attack on two villages in Afghanistan in March was largely calm and compliant when he turned himself in, witnesses testified Tuesday at the second day of his hearing. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales followed orders, sometimes sat with his head in his hands and made a joke in a failed effort to ease the tension.

Sketch by Lois Silver shows Sgt. Robert Bales, centre, and his defence attorneys listening to witness Sgt. Jason McLaughlin in proceeding at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington..

But Bales also deliberately mangled his laptop, folding the screen, said two soldiers assigned to accompany him while he gathered his things.

That didn’t prevent investigators from retrieving information from the computer, Sgt. Ross O’Rourke said. He didn’t say what information was collected.

Bales, 39, a veteran of four combat tours, faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder. The hearing will help determine whether the case goes to a court martial.

The March 11 attack on the villages of Balandi and Alkozai prompted the U.S. to halt combat operations for days in the face of protests. It was a month before military investigators could reach the crime scenes.

A prosecutor’s opening statement and other witness testimony Monday suggested Bales spent the evening before the massacre at his remote outpost of Camp Belambay with fellow soldiers, watching a movie about revenge killings, sharing contraband whiskey from a plastic bottle and discussing an attack that cost one of their friends his leg.

Within hours, Bales embarked on a killing spree, killing 16 Afghans before returning to the base in predawn darkness, bloody and incredulous that his comrades ordered him to surrender his weapons, said prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse.

“I thought I was doing the right thing,” a fellow soldier recalled Bales saying.

Cpl. David Godwin testified that Bales asked him to bleach his blood-soaked clothing.

Morse said that after Bales attacked one village he returned to his post, woke a colleague to report what he had done and said he was headed out to attack again. The colleague took it as a bad joke.

“I never got out of bed, sir,” the colleague, Sgt. Jason McLaughlin, testified. “I thought it was ridiculously out of the realm of normal possibility.”

Bales has not entered a plea. His attorneys have not discussed the evidence, but they say Bales has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury during a prior deployment to Iraq.

The defence did not give an opening statement. Bales was not expected to testify.

A surveillance blimp captured video of a caped man, identified as Bales, returning to the base. He was greeted by McLaughlin and other soldiers with “weapons at the ready,” said Morse.

McLaughlin said Bales’ first words were: “Are you (expletive) kidding me?”

McLaughlin testified that Bales then turned to him and asked: “Mac, did you rat me out?” McLaughlin replied, “No.”

Shortly before leaving the base, Bales told a Special Forces soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Clayton Blackshear, the troops should have been quicker to retaliate for the March 5 bomb attack, Morse said.

“At all times, he had a clear understanding of what he was doing and what he had done,” said Morse.

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