Jack Healy / The New York Times – 2013-08-23 00:45:34
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (August 22, 2013) — Staff Sgt. Robert Bales offered a tearful apology on Thursday for gunning down 16 unarmed Afghan civilians inside their homes, but said he still could not explain why he had carried out one of the worst American war crimes in years.
“What I did is an act of cowardice,” he said, choking up as he sat on the witness stand in a military courtroom here. “I’m truly, truly sorry for those people whose family members I’ve taken away.”
The unsworn statement from Sergeant Bales, 40, came on the third day of a hearing to determine whether he should ever be eligible for parole in the March 2012 massacre. In June, he pleaded guilty to slipping away from his combat base in southern Afghanistan and invading the mud-walled compounds where dozens of Afghan civilians slept. He beat and kicked them, chased them from room to room, opened fire on them, and set several of their bodies ablaze.
Two days of wrenching testimony from survivors and witnesses painted indelible images of the brutality of Sergeant Bales’ crimes, and their toll on the victims. Bearded Afghan men, who traveled some 7,000 miles to testify in the hearing, spoke of how nearly every member of their families had been taken.
A skinny boy told how he cried after seeing his sister shot. A doctor described how a young girl named Zardana could no longer dress herself or go to the bathroom without help.
Sergeant Bales sat quietly, his hands often clasped in front of him, during that testimony, sometimes watching as prosecutors displayed video images of the carnage. On Thursday, he said he understood the terrible cost of what he had done.
“If I could bring their family members back I would in a heartbeat,” he said. “I can’t comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids. I know I murdered their family. I took that away from them.”
He spoke tearfully about how he had disgraced his family. And with particular emotion, he apologized for shaming the Army and staining the reputation of the “really good guys, some heroes” who had served alongside him during three deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.
But his apology — the first time he has publicly expressed sorrow — came without an explanation.
“I don’t know why,” he said.
Lawyers for Sergeant Bales offered no clues, either. The defense has suggested that he was a broken man who suffered from post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury, a good soldier who had snapped under the strain of four wartime deployments. B
ut they presented no such evidence to the six-person jury weighing whether Sergeant Bales deserves a life sentence with no possibility of parole, or whether he should have a chance at freedom after serving about 20 years in prison. The closing arguments are set for Friday, and then the jury will deliberate.
The few witnesses to speak on his behalf recalled him as a loving son and neighbor, a devoted father, a generous high-school buddy and a brave soldier who endured explosions and bore witnesses to the bloody horrors of Iraq’s insurgency.
On Thursday, Sergeant Bales said that after returning from his tours in Iraq, he slid deeper into a pit of anger, weakness and fear. He said he had attended counseling but quit after about a month and a half after failing to see any improvements. He said he had not been eager to return to combat for a fourth deployment.
In a long narrative of the massacre and the events leading to it, prosecutors painted Sergeant Bales as a frustrated soldier prone to drinking and violent outbursts. They said that he had been in deep financial trouble, that he wanted to divorce his wife, and that he was upset about being passed over for a promotion to sergeant first class.
In Afghanistan, he began taking steroids and at times lost his temper, once screaming at another soldier and once punching and kneeing an Afghan driver who accidentally struck Sergeant Bales with a box of supplies.
On Thursday, Sergeant Bales said he had seen threats everywhere, spotting phantom bombs and Taliban where other soldiers saw nothing. The day before the shooting, Sergeant Bales spent eight hours hacking away at a fallen tree that Taliban fighters had used as a landmark for placing roadside bombs.
“I couldn’t let it go,” he said.
Throughout his statement, he acknowledged that his apologies would not bring back anyone’s wife, children or parents.
“Sorry just isn’t good enough,” he said.
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