By Rick Rojas
8:29 PM PDT, August 22, 2013
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, and injuring many more condemned his conduct as an "act of cowardice" Thursday and apologized to the victims' families, his own family and his comrades in the Army.
"If I could bring their families back, I would," Staff Sgt. Robert Bales said in unsworn testimony at his sentencing hearing here. "I can't comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids."
Bales, 40, pleaded guilty in June to the 2012 rampage, avoiding the death penalty in exchange for a life sentence. Once the defense and prosecution offer closing arguments, scheduled for Friday, the six-member military jury will decide whether Bales will be eligible for parole.
His defense has sought to humanize him as a dependable and upstanding man — a good father, a good soldier, a good friend — who had been tormented by war.
Prosecutors have countered that Bales has a troubled history with his marriage, finances, steroids, alcohol use and authority figures. They have also focused on the toll the rampage took on the families he attacked and on the military's relationships in Afghanistan.
The defense had been expected to call mental health experts to testify about Bales' psychological state at the time of the attack, including a concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder from multiple deployments to war zones.
But Bales' attorneys declined. His lawyer, John Henry Browne, called it a "tactical decision," noting that doing so would have prompted prosecutors to call rebuttal witnesses. "It would have been the battle of the experts," Browne said.
Instead, the defense called old friends and fellow soldiers, men who could vouch for "Bobby" — as several referred to him — and his character.
"He really sacrificed his own wants and needs for those of the team," said former professional football player Marc Edwards, who played high school football with Bales. "He was just an unbelievable leader. I looked up to him. I still do."
Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Farris counted Bales as a subordinate in Iraq, and eventually as a friend. Farris called him a dependable go-getter who cared about his fellow soldiers. Farris also described the carnage they saw during their time in Iraq: the danger, the bloodshed and the onerous task of cleaning up. He said that collecting a soldier's remains after a bombing, piece by piece, had stayed on his own mind.
"At the time you're doing it, you're working," he said. "You're on high alert and things are different at that point because there's the threat of the enemy attacking you again.... It's the reflection afterwards, and there aren't many days afterwards that you aren't thinking of stuff."
After the defense witnesses, Bales took the stand to offer unsworn testimony — a provision unique to military court that allows a defendant to speak but avoid cross-examination.
Bales said he returned from Iraq filled with seemingly irrational anger. Simple things — doing the dishes, running an errand — could send him into a rage.
Another of his attorneys, Emma Scanlan, asked how he readjusted after his first three tours in Iraq.
"It was difficult, ma'am," Bales said. "It was hard. It didn't feel right. I was angry."
He drank, he said, and became dependent on sleeping pills. Certain sounds and smells could set him off, particularly those, he said, that he associated with combat.
"Nothing can describe the smell," he said. "It just takes you back immediately."
Initially, he said, he told no one and sought no help for the anger, the drinking or the pills. "I didn't want to be weak. I didn't want to tell anyone. I tried to hide it." Later, he went to counseling for about six weeks but quit because, he said, he didn't think it was helping.
Scanlan didn't ask about specifics of the early morning of March 11, 2012, when Bales set off on a rampage through two Afghan villages. But she asked who he thought was responsible for the massacre.
"I am," he said. "I'm responsible."
He expressed remorse to his family and fellow soldiers.
"Sorry I disgraced you," he said, turning to look at members of his family, including his wife, mother and brother, who sat in the courtroom.
He showed the most emotion, however, when it came to the Army.
"I love the Army," he said. "I stood next to some really good guys, some real heroes.... I can't say I'm sorry to those guys enough."
When he finished, he sat back down beside his lawyers, bowed his head and stared at the table.
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