Suspect in Afghan case a profile in contradictions

By Helen O'neill

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 21 2012 1:55 p.m. MDT

FILE - This Friday, March 16, 2012 file photo, shows the home of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in Lake Tapps, Wash. From working in penny-stock boiler rooms that drew numerous complaints, to an unpaid $1.5 million fraud arbitration judgment, to a failed investment partnership with a former high school teammate who later played in the Super Bowl, Bales has a trail of shaky financial dealing in the United States, records show. The 38-year-old Army staff sergeant is accused of killing 16 Afghans, including nine children in March 2012.

Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

Robert Bales boasted of being one of the good guys, a proud patriot who enlisted in the army just two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and engaged in some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq.

But the gung-ho military volunteer had a darker, more troubled and contradictory side — which surfaced over and over during his sometimes turbulent life.

He is a portrait of opposites. A doting father of two now suspected in the cold-blooded slaughter of children. A one-time stockbroker who left financial disaster in his wake as he headed off to war with huge fines and accusations of fraud hanging over his head. A devoted breadwinner straining to keep up payments on his house.

Through it all, masking his troubles with a cheerful grin and good-guy persona.

Today, the 38-year-old Army staff sergeant remains locked in an isolation cell in a maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., accused of killing 16 Afghans, including nine children.

"Sergeant Psycho" screamed one tabloid headline as family and friends struggled to reconcile their memories of a good-natured, hardworking father and trusted soldier, with the lone gunman who, military officials say, went on a horrific nighttime shooting spree, setting some of the victims' bodies on fire.

Had their consummate good guy somehow become a monstrous rogue soldier?

Did he snap under the mounting pressures of multiple combat deployments (this was his fourth tour), financial troubles (he and his wife had walked away from one house and had just put another on the market), and the sheer hell of war? His lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said a fellow soldier's leg had been blown off days before the rampage and Bales had seen the wounds. And, Browne said, Bales had suffered injuries during his deployments, including a serious foot injury and head trauma.

Still the questions swirl.

What brought this ordinary, well-regarded soldier, who seemed never quite able to make his mark in life — not in school, or business, or the military — to this terrible place?

The youngest of five brothers, Bales is still referred to as "our Bobby" in Norwood, Ohio, the working class suburb of Cincinnati where he grew up. The family was all about "God, country, family," said Michelle Caddell, who lived across the street from what is still known as "the Bales' house", a two-story, maroon brick home on Ivanhoe Avenue. She described a cheerful, all around good guy, who took care of a neighbor with a disability and was respectful to young and old alike.

Her mother, Faye Blevins reacted to the news by saying: "That's not true. That's not Bobby" — a sentiment that seemed to echo through the neighborhood.

At Norwood High School Bales had the same big-hearted reputation. He was considered a good student, a military history buff and a "happy-go-lucky" member of the football team, said retired physical education teacher Jack Bouldin.

"He was a great guy with a huge heart," said teammate Steve Berling.

But while Bales was a staunch member of the team, he was never its star. That honor went to Marc Edwards, a future running back at Notre Dame and later NFL teams including the 2002 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Bales was gracious about being second-best, but it would be a tag that would dog him in many aspects of his life.

Details of Bales' years after high school are sketchy — though a pattern of sorts emerges — of not completing his goals, of never distinguishing himself, of never being the star. He spent a year at St. Joseph's, a small, private liberal arts school in Cincinnati, but didn't earn a degree. He went on to attend Ohio State University from 1993 to 1996 and majored in economics but didn't graduate.

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