TACOMA, Wash./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army identified the soldier implicated in the massacre of 16 villagers in Afghanistan this week as Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, and said he arrived on Friday at a Kansas base where he will be held in a solitary cell.
Bales, a four-tour veteran, is suspected of walking off his base in southern Afghanistan on Sunday and gunning down the 16 civilians, including nine children and three women, in a massacre that sent American-Afghan relations into a tailspin.
“The Army confirms that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Bales is being held in pre-trial confinement,” the Army said in a statement.
The 38-year-old soldier, whose military unit is based south of Tacoma, Washington, had been held in Kuwait after he was flown out of Afghanistan on Wednesday. Bales has not yet been charged.
“I would assume he’ll be charged pretty fast,” said Jeffrey Lustick, a defense attorney and former Air Force military prosecutor and defense attorney in Bellingham, Washington.
Bales is expected to face justice under U.S. military rules, but it is not clear where any trial would take place.
Photos of a soldier identified as Bales, wearing camouflage and battle gear, appeared in an article about training for soldiers headed for Afghanistan on a web publication linked to Fort Irwin, a California military base. According to the website, the photos were taken in August.
Bales’ wife and two young children have been moved to Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Seattle for protection, said Bales’ Seattle-based lawyer, John Henry Browne.
The Army said Bales will be held in “special housing in his own cell” in the Fort Leavenworth detention center, which it described as a “medium/minimum custody facility.”
Bales, who completed a two-year associate college degree in 1992, joined the Army in 2001, the Army said. His home of record was listed as Jensen Beach, Florida.
His military training included education in sniper skills, military leadership and a course called “combat life savers.”
The Baleses’ off-white, spacious wood home sat dark on Friday night in a neighborhood now filled with news media in the town of Bonney Lake east of Tacoma. A children’s playset was in the backyard, situated about a block from Lake Tapps.
Few neighbors were present. At one house backing on to Bales’ property, a handwritten sign addressed to media was posted on the door, reading: “We don’t know Bales, so don’t ask.”
Beau Britt, staying at his parents’ house across the street, said he did not know Bales or his family. “It’s not the sort of area where you just walk up to a house and start talking to them,” Britt said.
Browne told Reuters that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, would likely be part of the defense.
“It is commonly used in military defense,” he said, calling it a mitigating factor. Browne has said the soldier was unhappy about returning to combat after being wounded twice in Iraq.
The Army statement said Bales had spent a total of 37 months during three deployments in Iraq between 2003 and 2010.
Browne added on Friday that Bales had witnessed a serious injury to a comrade the day before the massacre in the southern province of Kandahar on Sunday.
“One leg was blown off,” Browne said, and the sergeant was nearby. Browne or a colleague from the defense team plan to meet the sergeant next week, he said.
The shootings of the 16 villagers have harmed relations between Afghanistan and the United States. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has accused the Pentagon of failing to fully cooperate with an investigation into the killings.
Browne told CNN he had spoken with his client earlier in the morning, and in the short conversation the soldier “sounded distant and kind of like a deer in the headlights, but OK.”
At a news conference on Thursday, Browne described his client as “an exemplary soldier” who was upset at having to do a fourth tour of duty in a war zone and was likely suffering from stress after seeing colleagues wounded.
An unnamed U.S. official had told The New York Times the killings were a result of “a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues - he just snapped.”
But Browne said on CNN that marital problems were “totally bogus.” He said his client had a “very strong marriage and, frankly, we’re all taking offense at that.”
Karzai met with village elders and families of victims of the shootings on Friday and appeared to back their belief that a single gunman could not have killed so many people and in different places some distance apart.
On Thursday, Karzai called for NATO troops to leave Afghan villages and confine themselves to major bases, underscoring fury over the massacre and clouding U.S. plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Additional reporting by Vicki Allen and Bill Rigby; editing by Peter Cooney and Mohammad Zargham