Flying over Panjwai in early March was an apocalyptic image. No signs of vegetation or life, just barren fields for miles, consisting of deep farm rows, bordered by thick mud walls, with grape huts jutting out unnaturally from the landscape every few hundred meters. When I landed at VSP (Village Stability Platform) Belambai, the ODA (Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha) commander and the SOTF (Special Operations Task Force)-South commander were on the LZ to greet me. I was worried at this point that the Special Forces leadership was going to cast blame for the incident on me and my unit, but from that first moment getting off the bird they made it clear that they were not blaming anyone, and I was welcome as part of the team as we sorted through everything.
Seeing my soldiers there for the first time in four months was an image I will never forget. All of them were young, in their early 20s and late teens, but they all looked like they had aged decades. Their combat experience had given them a look of weariness around their eyes that is an unmistakable effect of combat. They had matured too. They were a different group of guys than who I had waved goodbye to at Kandahar Air Field (KAF) in December.
Because of the operational restriction bubble placed around VSP Belambai, the Taliban soon realized they could get closer and closer to the VSP without active patrols keeping them away. Soon they launched attacks against the base daily, almost like clockwork at around 1630. Just as the sun was setting in the west, they would attack from that direction, so you got to stare into a giant burning orb of sunlight as you tried to engage them. It was an extremely frustrating experience. We could do nothing for the time being. Just wait as the investigation played out many levels above us.
I slept in the CHU (containerized housing unit) that had previously been occupied by one of my squad leaders, now detained as part of the investigation. It was a surreal experience. I had no ability to affect any sort of real leadership for the guys. I had no information to give them, so I just spent every day doing what they were doing. Filling sandbags, working out in the prison gym, waiting for the next attack. As part of the investigation, I sat for a video teleconference (VTC) with the investigating officer, a one-star general. It was in the afternoon, and I privately worried about what would happen if we should come under attack during the VTC. Nothing happened, and I returned to the mind-numbing existence of watching paint dry as we waited for word.
Bobby’s CHU was off-limits. I wanted to get into it to see the platoon equipment he had signed for from me as part of a monthly property inventory, but it was gone, possibly as part of the investigation. To add insult to injury, I was found liable for the equipment he had signed for as part of a Financial Liability Investigation of Property Loss (FLIPL) that was conducted by an officer on rear-detachment at Fort Lewis. Explaining the unusual circumstances did nothing to dissuade the brave FLIPL investigating officer from charging me for the equipment.
After nearly a month at VSP Belambai in this sort of shiftless existence, it was finally determined that the men who had been with Bobby at the time of the incident at Belambai would return to the States, no exceptions. They were distraught at the news. They were enjoying their deployment, they felt bonded as brothers by the experience. They were angry at Bobby for doing this to them. They said he had been an asshole, and no one liked him. I could do nothing but listen and try to empathize.
I was on the convoy with them as we drove out of Panjwai to return to KAF. A few days later, my Platoon Sergeant, still conducting operations at VSP Ezabad, rolled onto Camp Brown at KAF to pick me up and bring me back out. I went back to Maiwand and resumed operations like before. The ODA welcomed me back, and after a few awkward jokes about me still having my job, they were respectful of the complexity of the situation. My deployment rolled on for six more months, with no one really knowing what to make of Bobby’s situation.
By the time I was back stateside, I wanted nothing to do with Bobby Bales. I felt betrayed. I felt he had lost control of himself, and as a result turned his back on me and the platoon. By this point, word was trickling out to my friends and classmates from West Point that I was the platoon leader at the time of the massacre. My friends cautiously approached the subject when talking to me for the first time in years. Even after explaining the very unusual circumstances, the fact that everyone in the unit thought Bobby could walk on water, that I had no way to supervise him from 80 kilometers away, fighting an entirely different war, with the exception of my close friends I felt a strange stigma for being associated with it.
As I got back into the usual fast pace of garrison operations, I lost track of Bobby and the ensuing trial. I wanted nothing to do with it. Eventually I read stories about it in publications like the Washington Post and GQ. Despite whatever extensive research they had done, I felt like their depiction of the scenario was bullshit. It felt like they were reaching for the classic “PTSD victim, a shattered soul” stereotype. Bobby had his issues, but so does everyone. The things he said and the way he acted was no different than any other infantry NCO across the United States Army. To read about him like he was some broken soul, struggling with inner demons and a collapsing marriage just did not match up to my reality. If that really were the case, Bobby had masterfully concealed how it was affecting him.
On June 5th 2013, Bobby pled guilty to murdering 16 innocent people and wounding six more. I was not present for any court proceeding, but when reading the transcript, I can hear his voice as he says “There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did.” Bobby was always extraordinarily hard on himself, and I really do believe him when he says he doesn’t know why he did it.
On August 23rd 2013, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. As I reflect on the incident with a few more years of hindsight, I’m less angry about it, and instead just sad. It sounds horribly cliché, but the Bobby I know was a friend, and was not someone who would do something like he has admitted he has done. I think that ultimately this is an example of the horrible things that occur in war, where people are pushed to the limits of their physical and mental capacity. I am in no way excusing it, but instead trying to come to some sort of understanding. Maybe there is no way of understanding it. It just is.
I had joined the Army to lead soldiers and save the world, and I think this situation had the potential of ruining the idealism about my service. I didn’t let it, and in a way, I’ve come to appreciate the experience, to see it as a challenge. I was able to emerge stronger. Eventually, I decided that Bobby’s choices would do no more damage than they already had. I lost a friend because of it, I would lose no more.