Read Part One here.
Rumors were going around within a week of being on the job that we were deploying to Afghanistan that winter, only four months away. Right before we loaded up for a month-long rotation to the National Training Center (NTC), it came down the pipe that our battalion would be given the Village Stability Operations infantry uplift mission for a one-year deployment to Afghanistan. Our NTC rotation would thus reflect living on a VSP (Village Stability Platform), raising up Afghan Local Police, and all the other little training objectives for counterinsurgency the Army wanted us to train on.
The NTC rotation had all the typical madness any unit experiences there. For me and Bobby, we came together well as a Platoon Leader/Platoon Sergeant team. The previous Platoon Leader had been relieved for being incompetent, so it was an adjustment for Bobby to have an officer who actually led the platoon. There were times when we butted heads; he had been so accustomed to giving orders to the platoon as the platoon leader that he didn’t necessarily like a 2nd lieutenant asserting himself and giving the orders. But we worked through those issues, and our platoon was recognized as the highest performing for the rotation.
For the Afghanistan deployment later that year, our company was directed to split up the platoons into smaller elements at the request of the Special Forces ODAs (Operational Detachment Alpha) in theater. My platoon was going to be split in half. One ODA wanted a platoon leader and platoon sergeant who could independently run operations, so I was going there. The most kinetic and dangerous VSP in Special Operations Task Force-South, VSP Belambai, wanted two squads, led by the most combat experienced and responsible NCO we had. Coincidentally, at that moment the Army sent a Sergeant First Class down to my battalion who needed platoon sergeant time. Bobby was the only Staff Sergeant filling a slot meant for a Sergeant First Class, and so he was removed from the position. My company command team, faced with a series of difficult decisions, decided to keep Bobby within the platoon as the senior squad leader who would take the two squads to VSP Belambai.
Bobby was angry he was effectively being demoted. It was awkward performing functions as a platoon in the last few weeks before deploying with him as a squad leader. He had run the platoon for the year before I got there, we had established a great relationship, and now he was replaced by a new NCO who was totally new to the unit.
When we arrived at Kandahar Airfield in December 2011, we were rushed through a series of quick mandatory training events, and told to get ready to move out to our VSPs with our respective ODAs. At this point, Bobby seemed genuinely excited to be getting away from the company. He did not like the Platoon Sergeant who replaced him, probably for no other reason than he was now the Platoon Sergeant, and morale was low across the battalion for a number of reasons. In his eyes, he was going to be able to do his job as an Infantry NCO in combat, and would effectively be the senior guy on the ground again.
On our last night at KAF, when I found out my ODA would be picking up my half of the platoon in the morning, we gathered up the platoon for our last goodbyes. It was awkward. Everyone sort of hugging and shaking hands while jets were blasting off and washing over us with jet noise, the smell of burning plastic that hung in the air, and the general awkwardness of a forced and artificial goodbye. I shook Bobby’s hand, told him good luck and that I’d be staying in touch, and without knowing it, that would be the last time I would ever see him.
The first few months of the deployment were largely uneventful. By coincidence, our two squads with me at VSP Ezabad got into minor engagements with the enemy within the first week or two on the ground. The same was happening with Bobby at VSP Belambai. The nature of southern Afghanistan and Kandahar in particular lends itself to year-round conflict. There are no treacherous mountain passes covered in snow, no Himalayan style peaks stretching into the sky. It’s just flat, dusty, rural Afghanistan. Because the weather never closes routes, fighting can continue even in the winter months. Where I was in Maiwand District, fighting had lessened considerably than what it once was. We received sporadic contact from great distances, encountered a few Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), but nothing major.
I stayed in contact with Bobby through weekly phone calls. I would call and ask about how the guys were doing, what kinds of operations they had them involved with, and how he was doing. It was around this time that he started getting short with me. He didn’t like telling me about what they were doing, would give short, one-word responses, but insisted everything was fine. He would brag about how much contact they were getting in, and seemed to be doing it to rub it in my face. He liked the excitement of a combat deployment. He questioned the validity of our squads after earning the Combat Infantryman Badge, in a joking manner, but I could feel the edge to his questioning.
At one point during one phone call, I could hear one of the ODA members in the background ask Bobby who he was talking to. After Bobby told him, I could hear the voice in the background say “Want me to tell him to fuck off?” This was followed by laughter that Bobby quickly tried to cover by muting the phone. Bobby told me that his ODA didn’t like it when I called and asked for reports. After explaining that I was not looking for operational details, just checking on the welfare of my soldiers, Bobby would keep our conversations mostly to just boring details and said everyone was fine.
By this point in early 2012, we were conducting our own operations. It was as if my platoon, which was now roughly 20 men at VSP Ezabad, was fighting its own little war in Maiwand. We got along great with our ODA, and things were going well. Bobby kept telling me everything was fine.
On the morning of March 12th, 2012, I got woken up at 0530 by the radio guard, one of my soldiers.
“Sir, Captain Woods is on the phone,” Captain Woods was my company commander from 2-3.
“What does he want?” He rarely ever called, and never this early in the morning.
“He won’t say, but he says you have to come talk right now.”
Pulling a hoodie over my head, I walked into the TOC and picked up the phone.
“Hey Travis, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news, you might want to be sitting down,” Captain Woods said immediately. A number of thoughts flashed through my head, but mostly I thought it was going to be something about our battalion leadership. There were lots of rumors going around about them possibly being relieved, among other such gossip.
“Sure, what’s up sir?”
“We’re just now getting some initial reports, but it sounds like there was an incident at VSP Belambai. We don’t really know all the details, but it sounds like Staff Sergeant Bales may have shot some people he wasn’t supposed to.”
Oh great, I thought. I knew they had been in regular contact, to include being attacked at the VSP. My first thought was that there must have been some nasty firefight in the middle of a crowded village area, but was confused momentarily how they could have attributed multiple civilian casualties to just Bobby.
After asking how that was possible, Captain Woods confirmed that it was because he had left the base that morning and potentially shot the people on purpose.
Oh fuck, was my immediate next thought. I don’t really remember what else we talked about, but he told me at that point the entire SOTF, and probably the entire Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) was on communications and operational lockdown. We were not authorized to use the internet or phones to talk to anyone for the time being. With the operational blackout, we were restricted to the base, and could not conduct even a regular patrol right outside our perimeter.
Addressing the platoon for the first time to tell them the most highly regarded NCO in the battalion had just revealed himself as a mass murderer is not a part of any class you receive at the Infantry Officer Course.
Like me, the soldiers were dumbfounded. Some would not believe it, some insisted it all made sense. Either way, we were trapped on our VSP for the time being, left to watch AFN (Armed Forces Network) in our shitty MWR tent and wonder about the future.
Fast forward to watching the President apologize to the world. At this point I had no clue what was going to happen. I wasn’t sleeping well, wasn’t eating right, and my mind raced constantly. What did this mean? Why would he do this? Was there something I didn’t do? How could I have prevented this? The Army does a great job of drilling accountability and responsibility into your head. At this point, I felt like I had some responsibility in the matter, like there was some way I could have seen this coming and prevented it. But almost just as fast, I realized there was no way to know anything like that was possible.
Three days after the incident, I learned that every one of my NCOs that had been at VSP Belambai had been taken back to KAF as part of the investigation. I had about 16 young soldiers with a 22-year old buck sergeant leading them at this moment of total chaos. I asked my ODA and the SOTF if I could be flown to Belambai to provide whatever sort of leadership I could. They agreed, I packed my bags, and hopped on a helicopter to Panjwai.
Featured image is of the author and “the Belambai Boys,” men from 2-3 Infantry who were assigned to VSP Belambai from 2011-2012.
To be continued in Part III: The Aftermath