With all of the discussions taking place around the web concerning Nidal Hasan and Bradley Manning, (sorry… still not calling you Chelsea) it was easy to overlook yet another military trial which came to a close this week. Robert Bales reached the end of the sentencing phase in his trial, held at an Army base in Washington state. As you will recall, Bales is the US soldier who admitted to leaving his post in Panjwai, Kandahar, going into two neighboring villages and shooting a large number of Afghan locals, including nine children and four women. Having already plead guilty to avoid the possibility of the death penalty, the jury decided Bales would be spending the rest of his life in prison.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghans in a shooting spree last year, was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole, legally closing an episode of one of the worst atrocities of the Afghanistan war.
Jurors deliberated for less than two hours after hearing closing arguments Friday morning at the sentencing hearing for Bales, who pleaded guilty in June to avoid the death penalty. A jury of six soldiers was asked to decide if Bales deserved a sentence of life in prison or the possibility of parole after 20 years…
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan acknowledged the atrocities, but asked jurors to weigh his earlier honorable record in the military and give him a “sliver of light” with a sentence that had the possibility of parole.
From the beginning, the only word I’ve had for this case was “sad.” The original incident was a tragedy, the events leading up to it – and the missed opportunities to prevent it – were terrible and the end of this trial was just … sad. I also have to wonder if Bales had the best legal representation he might have gotten. The guilty plea was understandable, but his attorney, John Henry Browne, never even brought up the PTSD angle during the sentencing phase. In fact, he said the following:
“We didn’t want to open that door,” Mr. Browne said, “because then, you get into a battle of the experts. I don’t think juries like that.”
We can neither ignore nor dismiss what Bales did, as he was clearly far outside of the rules of engagement. But even if bringing up the medical issues involved didn’t wind up reducing his maximum possible sentence, it might have at least ensured that he would get the treatment he needs while incarcerated. The defense had what they described as “a ton of documentation” regarding the soldier’s mental state, and the warning signs had been there for a while. Bales had already done three tours in Iraq totaling 37 months before going to Kandahar and was treated for traumatic brain injury following an accident in 2010. He was in a place where everyone was under constant stress, including seeing people who were supposedly our allies and comrades in arms strolling into camp and blowing themselves up. He’d run into problems readjusting to civilian environments in between tours, having gotten in trouble with the law for fighting and sought treatment for anger issues and related problems. Why the defense found this not worthy of mentioning seems questionable.
But if nothing else, the sad story of Robert Bales should at least serve as a reminder to the rest of us regarding the type of support our troops need and deserve, not just while serving, but afterwards as well. The vast, vast majority of our combat veterans deal with the stress of combat and come out of it okay after conducting themselves honorably throughout their service. But they are still human, and some of them won’t manage that feat. There is help available through the VA, though some may need a nudge to seek it out. Private groups offer support as well, including such diverse programs as matching up veterans with pets to help provide some furry therapy. Bales may never set foot outside of prison as a free man again, but it’s not a story we should just ignore.