WASHINGTON - The soldier accused of killing 17 Afghan villagers this month told his lawyers he has suffered from severe nightmares, flashbacks of war scenes, and persistent headaches after his multiple combat tours, one of the attorneys said Wednesday.
Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales told his legal team he has long awakened with night sweats, often replaying memories of a grisly episode that he and his infantry company witnessed in Iraq several years ago, according to John Henry Browne, a civilian lawyer.
Browne’s comments amounted to the most detailed public portrayal so far of Bales’s state of mind in the months leading up to an atrocity the soldier stands accused of committing, one of the worst involving US forces in the war in Afghanistan.
Military officials and witnesses allege that Bales left his base early in the predawn hours of March 11 and methodically killed Afghan villagers, most of them women and children. He allegedly attempted to burn the bodies before returning to base.
Browne, in an interview, did not acknowledge any wrongdoing by Bales, but the lawyer said his client told him that, on the night of the shootings, Bales returned to his base in southern Afghanistan with only a foggy memory of what had just happened. Bales, Browne said, remembered the smell of gunfire and of human bodies but not much more.
The lawyer stressed that Bales did not confess, as military officials have said.
Bales, 38, is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., pending a full military investigation. He faces the possibility of the death penalty on charges of premeditated murder.
Military officials have declined to offer a public explanation for Bales’s alleged actions, and the formal charges against him shed no light on a possible motive.
Bales had recently been passed over for a promotion, and he and his wife were under financial strain. This month, they put their house in the Tacoma, Wash., area up for sale for $50,000 less than the purchase price.
In recent years, Bales had several brushes with the law after incidents in which he was alleged to have been drinking.
Browne disputed any suggestion that alcohol had played a role in the attack in question in Afghanistan. He said that Bales had “two sips’’ of an unknown liquor that a Special Forces soldier had smuggled onto the base in a Gatorade bottle.
Browne, who met Bales face-to-face for the first time last week, said his client did, however, describe suffering symptoms strongly associated with posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of his combat experiences.
“There was a time when everyone in the room was crying when he described what he saw,’’ Browne said of the meeting that he, partner Emma Scanlan, and a military defense lawyer had with Bales. Browne said the “horror of war’’ become a routine backdrop for Bales, who also reported “seeing bodies all over the place’’ and “putting body parts in bags’’ in Iraq.
Bales, who joined the Army in 2001, served three tours in Iraq. The second tour, when he reportedly experienced a particularly harrowing occurrence, took place from June 2006 through September 2007. Browne declined to discuss that episode, saying it was classified.
Bales did not share the seriousness of the PTSD-like symptoms with his wife, Karilyn, because he did not want to worry her, according to Browne. In an interview with NBC News over the weekend, Karilyn Bales described her husband as a “very tough guy’’ who had shielded her from “a lot of what he went through.’’
Browne said Bales also attributed his headaches to a concussive brain injury he suffered in Iraq when the Stryker vehicle he was riding in hit a roadside bomb and overturned.