By Jonathan Kaminsky
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier who gunned down 16 Afghan civilians last year was an attentive father of two children and a duty-bound Army man before the attacks, his brother testified at a sentencing hearing on Wednesday.
William Bales spoke warmly of his youngest brother, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, saying the former high school football player left a carefree bachelor life behind to enlist in the military in the aftermath of al Qaeda attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
"There's no better father that I've seen," William Bales told a jury of six military personnel tasked with determining his fate. "If you brought the kids in there today they would run right to him."
Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has admitted to gunning down the villagers, mostly women and children, in nighttime attacks on their compounds in Kandahar province in March 2012.
He pleaded guilty in June in a deal that will spare him the death penalty. A military jury will decide if he will spend the rest of his life in prison or if he will be eligible for parole after 20 years.
The killings marked the worst case of civilian deaths blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further eroded strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.
The defense testimony on Wednesday appeared aimed at telling the story of Bales' transformation from a dutiful young man to a soldier who his civilian defense attorney says broke under the pressure of his final deployment to Afghanistan.
Defense attorneys for Bales have argued that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before his deployment to Afghanistan.
"I don't think anybody with a rational mind could say Bob Bales didn't snap," attorney John Henry Browne told reporters after the session. He said Bales would testify later in the proceedings and apologize for his crimes.
IMPACT OF RAMPAGE
The testimony for the defense was in sharp contrast to that of prosecution witnesses earlier in the day in which Afghan civilians - including a man who lost six of his seven children - testified to the impact of the attacks.
Army prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with chilling premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice during the night, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier, "I just shot up some people."
Haji Mohammad Wazir said he had been away when the attack occurred. When he got home he saw the bodies of 11 of his relatives, which had been loaded into a vehicle. Among them were his wife, mother, brother and six of his children.
"If someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastated that person would be," said Wazir, estimated to be in his thirties. His surviving 4-year-old son, who was with him at the time of the killings, "misses everyone" and has not forgotten them, he said.
Bales' brigade commander at the time of the slaughter, Colonel Todd Wood, testified that it would take generations before the United States can regain some of the trust lost in the massacre.
Bales, who has claimed his memories of the killings are spotty, acknowledged the killings upon pleading guilty in June and told the court at the time there was "not a good reason in this world" for his actions.
During a nine-day pre-trial hearing last fall, witnesses testified that Bales had been upset by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier's leg days before the shootings.
Prosecutors have said they hoped to show Bales had engaged in a pattern of bad behavior that predated his multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another Afghan witness, 41-year-old Mullah Khamal Adin, Wazir's cousin, testified that he arrived at the scene of one of the attacks to find Wazir's mother shot in the head at the entrance of her home. He found the corpses of other family members inside.
"It was such a devastating incident that I don't think I will ever forget it," Khamal Adin said.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Gary Hill and Lisa Shumaker)