JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — Two Afghan villagers who traveled about 7,000 miles to testify against a U.S. soldier who massacred their relatives didn’t get to say everything they wanted to in court Wednesday.
Haji Mohammad Wazir took the witness stand during the sentencing of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to describe the impact of losing 11 family members in the attack, including his mother, wife and six of his seven children.
Jurors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle will determine whether Bales, who pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty, is sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole or without it.
Wazir and a cousin answered a prosecutor’s questions, describing the horror they found when they arrived at the village and how the attacks affected them.
When the questions were over, each asked if he could say anything more.
“There are things I’d like to speak about if I have the chance,” Wazir said.
“You can only answer questions,” the judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, replied.
“Does anyone have any more questions?” the villager asked.
No one did.
The two were among nine victims and relatives flown from Kandahar Province to testify at the hearing — affording them their first chance to confront Bales in person. Seven testified Tuesday, including children who talked of being shot and losing their parents, and a farmer who was shot in the neck.
“This bastard stood right in front of me!” the farmer, Haji Mohammad Naim, testified Tuesday. “I wanted to ask him, ‘What did I do? What have I done to you?’ … and he shot me!”
Bales’ attorneys didn’t cross-examine any of them.
Wazir received $550,000 in condolence payments from the U.S. government, out of $980,000 paid in all. He told the six-member jury that the attacks destroyed what had been a happy life. He was in another village with his youngest son, now 5-year-old Habib Shah, during the attack.
“If someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastated their life would be,” he said. His son “misses everyone. He hasn’t forgotten any of them.”
“I’ve gone through very hard times,” he added. “If anybody speaks to me about the incident … I feel the same, like it’s happening right now.”
Khamal Adin described arriving at his cousin’s mud-walled home to find his aunt dead outside and a pile of burning bodies, including young children, within. Bales acknowledged setting the bodies alight with a kerosene lantern.
Two military doctors testified Wednesday, describing the treatment of Bales’ victims, including a young girl who had been shot in the head and who spent three months undergoing surgeries and rehabilitation at a naval hospital in San Diego, relearning how to walk.
Bales, a 39-year-old Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., was serving his fourth combat deployment when he left the outpost at Camp Belambay in the pre-dawn darkness. He first attacked one village, returning to Belambay only when he realized he was low on ammunition, said prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse.
Bales then left to attack another village.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
A former brigade commander in Afghanistan, Col. Todd Wood, told the jury about arriving at Belambay the morning of the attack to find an angry crowd outside, with four makeshift trucks carrying 13 of the bodies.
He said halting combat operations in the area allowed Taliban personnel to openly carry weapons and lay roadside bombs. Clearing those bombs eventually set the U.S. mission there back about three weeks.
At the time of the killings, Bales had been under heavy personal, professional and financial stress, Morse said. He had complained to other soldiers that his wife was fat and unattractive and said he’d divorce her except that her father had money. He had stopped paying the mortgage on one of his houses because it was assessed at $60,000 less than he paid for it, and he was upset that he had not been promoted.
During his plea hearing in June, Bales couldn’t explain to a judge why he committed the killings. “There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did,” he said.
He did not say he was sorry, but his lawyers hinted an apology might come at sentencing.
Bales’ attorneys have said they plan to present evidence that could warrant leniency, including his previous deployments and what they describe as his history of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
If he is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, Bales would be eligible in 20 years, but there’s no guarantee he would receive it.