LAKE TAPPS, Washington - On a winding road of wood-frame homes tucked amid towering pines, Robert Bales was the father who joined his two young children for playtime in the yard, a career soldier who greeted neighbors warmly but was guarded when talking about the years he spent away at war.
"When I heard him talk, he said ... 'Yeah, that's my job. That's what I do'," said Kassie Holland, a next-door neighbor to the soldier, who is now suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians last Sunday. "He never expressed a lot of emotion toward it."
Speaking to his fellow soldiers, though, Bales could exult in the role. Plunged into battle in Iraq, he told an interviewer for a base newspaper in 2009 that he and his comrades proved "the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy."
As reporters swarmed Bales' neighborhood late Friday, Holland and other neighbors shook their heads, trying but failing to reconcile the man they thought they knew with the allegations against him. Military officials say that at about 3 A.M. last Sunday, the 38-year-old staff sergeant crept away from the army base where he was stationed in southern Afghanistan, entered two slumbering villages and unleashed a massacre, shooting his victims and setting many of the bodies on fire. Eleven of those killed belonged to one family. Nine were children.
Until Friday, military officials had kept Bales' identity secret and what little was known about him remained sketchy. But with the release of his name, a still-incomplete but sharply conflicting portrait of the man comes into focus. Part of it reveals the father and husband neighbors recall, and a soldier quietly proud of his 11-year record of service, including three tours in Iraq.
But it also shows Bales had previous brushes with trouble. In 2002, records show, he was arrested at a Tacoma, Washington, hotel for assault on a girlfriend. Bales pleaded not guilty and was required to undergo 20 hours of anger-management counseling, after which the case was dismissed.
Bales has not yet been charged. On Friday he was flown from Kuwait to the military's only maximum-security prison, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It marked the tragic end of Bales' fourth tour of duty in a war zone, one his lawyer said he had hoped to avoid.
"He wasn't thrilled about going on another deployment," said the attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle.
A neighbor, Paul Wohlberg, recalled that when he last saw Bales in November, the two men talked briefly about the soldier's imminent departure for Afghanistan. Wohlberg described Bales as a man who clearly loved his country.
On Friday evening, Bales' neighbors said they did not know what to think. They gazed toward the soldier's home, where a U.S. flag leaned against the siding.
"I just can't believe Bob's the guy who did this," Wohlberg said. "A good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time."
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