As Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales sits in an isolated cell at the US military prison in Leavenworth, Kan., waiting to learn of formal charges for wantonly killing 16 Afghan villagers in a night time rampage a week ago, supporters and his lawyer are beginning to build a defense case.
The details will be unique to Sgt. Bales. But inevitably they boil down to what hundreds of thousands of GIs have experienced over 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan: the sometimes almost unbearable stress of violent combat and the strains of military life on individuals and their families.
In Bales’ case, according to initial reports from family members and the Seattle attorney they have engaged, that includes injuries during three previous tours in Iraq, witnessing at close hand the death and dismemberment of fellow soldiers, and financial difficulties on the home front at Joint Base Lewis McChord near Tacoma, Wash.
That’s the initial contention of Bales' civilian lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, who has cited post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a possible element leading to a horrific episode that killed and injured mainly Afghan women and children.
PTSD – called “soldier’s heart” during the Civil War, “shell shock” in World War I, and “battle fatigue” in World War II – is as old as combat itself. Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a physically uninjured soldier who went blind when the soldier next to him was killed. Studies estimate that nearly 30 percent of Vietnam veterans (some 830,000) have experienced some level of PTSD.
In 2008, the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization, reported that nearly 20 percent of military service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – some 300,000 at that point in the wars – reported symptoms of PTSD or major depression.
In addition, RAND reported, “Researchers found about 19 percent of returning service members report that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury [TBI] while deployed, with 7 percent reporting both a probable brain injury and current PTSD or major depression.”
A recent Army study on health problems noted that soldiers in stressful situations – either while deployed or back home – may have “a strong urge to use alcohol or drugs to try to get sleep or not think about things that happened” in combat. (There have been reports – denied by Bales’ lawyer – that Bales had been drinking before the Afghan villagers were killed.)
"Each soldier can be adversely affected by one or more physical or behavioral health issues at the same time but each in very different ways," the Army study says. "Leaders and healthcare providers now recognize that many individuals who suffer from PTSD or depression are at greater risk for alcohol and substance abuse, aggressive behavior and failed relationships."
Major concerns have included suicide levels and instances of spouse abuse, including murder.
Repeated overseas deployments can add to the stress of military life. Bales and his family reportedly were not happy with his unit’s deployment to Afghanistan after he had already had three combat tours. On her blog (since removed from the Internet), Mrs. Bales wrote of their disappointment when Sgt. Bales was not promoted to sergeant first class. The family home apparently was under water – on the market now for $50,000 less than they had paid for it in 2006.
Home and family difficulties do not excuse aberrant and violent behavior, of course, and PTSD can be a difficult basis for defense in criminal cases.
While PTSD can be significant in sentencing, “it's an uphill battle in the military and civilian court," defense attorney and retired Marine colonel Bruce White told Stars and Stripes newspaper.
The Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the uniformed services have increased efforts to understand, detect, and treat the symptoms of what VA Secretary Eric Shinseki (himself twice wounded in Vietnam) has called “the hidden wounds of war.” But controversy remains with some GIs reporting that their situations are disregarded or dismissed.
US Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington recently reported that 285 patients at the Madigan Army Medical Center on JBLM had their PTSD diagnoses rejected. Many soldiers who might have been able to retire with military compensation benefits complained, prompting a review and investigation. The medical center’s commander was removed during the investigation.
Meanwhile, Bales is expected to be formally charged this week, and his prosecution under military law will be conducted in the United States, a US official told the Associated Press Sunday. Later this week, Bales’ attorneys, plus a military lawyer assigned to defend him, plan to meet with the staff sergeant at the Leavenworth prison.
On Sunday, Bales’ defense team issued this statement:
“The defense team, which includes civilian attorneys John Henry Browne and Emma Scanlan and detailed military defense counsel Major Thomas Hurley plan to spend several days meeting with Staff Sergeant Robert Bales this upcoming week.
“Public reports that Sergeant Bale's supervisors, family and friends describe him as a level-headed, experienced soldier are consistent with information gathered by the defense team. It is too early to determine what factors may have played into this incident and the defense team looks forward to reviewing the evidence, examining all of Sergeant Bale's medical and personnel records, and interviewing witnesses.
“Sergeant Bales 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.”