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Afghanistan Shooting Suspect Held In Kansas Prison


We've spent much of the weekend trying to understand a nightmare moment of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. An American soldier apparently walked off his post and killed 16 Afghan men, women and children. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales - we know his name now - is being held in solitary confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been gathering details of the shooter's life, and he's on the line now. And, Tom, what have you learned?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Steve, we're hearing he was a very good soldier during his tours in Iraq. Those who served with him said he was very brave. He took care of his men. He was involved in a particularly hellacious battle back in 2007 in Najaf. And one officer said, listen, he was always positive. He could really handle the stress we were all under. And the other thing is neighbors spoke highly of him, as well. They called him a family man, a very nice guy, and nothing seemed to jump out at anyone, no particular problems. He did have a couple of brushes with the law about a decade ago, but nothing serious. And it's very early in the process, but - things - maybe there are things we haven't learned about him yet. But what we're seeing so far is really a very contradictory picture: a guy who seemed to be a solid soldier, but definitely under some stress.

INSKEEP: Yeah. You have him described him as a good soldier. And this is a sergeant. We should point out for people, sergeants are, in some ways, the heart of the Army, the connection between the lower enlisted men and the officers above. They make a big difference as to whether the Army works or doesn't work. And so you have a man who's described as doing that difficult job really well. But was he under some kind of pressure, even more than his colleagues?

BOWMAN: Yeah. He was under professional frustrations. He hadn't been promoted to first sergeant, according to his wife's blog about a year ago, and there were financial strains on the family, as well. Apparently, his house outside Tacoma went on the market just before the incident, and they put it up for sale for less than what they paid for it. And also, his lawyers said, you know, he really didn't want to go to Afghanistan. This was his fourth tour. He expected to get posted somewhere else. His wife talked about maybe Germany, Italy, even Hawaii, and he had hopes of becoming an Army recruiter. Instead, he goes back into combat. So we have professional, financial pressures, and then the shock of going back to combat. Again, this is his fourth tour, and that all adds up. And that's what the defense team seems to be highlighting.

INSKEEP: Although, this is where it gets difficult to explain incidents like this, because haven't tens of thousands of American troops faced pressures just like you described?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. And, you know, I personally know soldiers and Marines who have even done more than four tours - very, very tough deployments. So, you know, at this point, it's hard to know what might have happened and what was really going through his mind.

INSKEEP: So, granting that it's difficult to know what was in this man's head, is it clear to investigators exactly what happened on the ground in Afghanistan that night?

BOWMAN: Well, at this point, what they're saying is he just walked out of his combat outpost on the outskirts of Kandahar. This is a very, very - it was a very dangerous place about a year and a half ago when I was there. Now it's a little bit better. He was working with Green Berets at this outpost, and they were reaching out to villages, setting up defensive networks, governance and so forth. And what they're saying is that shortly before dawn, he just walked out of this combat outpost and he, you know, was carrying his personal weapon, M-4 assault rifle, and he walked into a couple of villages and systematically, they say, killed 16 men, women and children, and then walked back to the outpost and just turned himself in and said I want to see a lawyer. But, again, this is what investigators are saying. You know, this hasn't - he hasn't been charged yet and clearly hasn't gone to trial, of course.

INSKEEP: Well, that raises one other question, briefly, Tom Bowman: He's back in the United States. What happens to him now?

BOWMAN: Well, his lawyer will visit him, we're told, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he's being held in pretrial detention. And, of course, the government's preparing charges now, but they want to be very careful about this, Steve, and very thorough. It's a very high-profile case, and the stakes are high. And it's already caused one more rift with the government of Hamid Karzai, Afghans' president.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.