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Bales chose wrong answer to his life's frustrations

Mar 22, 2012 - By The Dallas Morning News Services

Even before U.S. officials identified Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as the suspect in the grisly mass murder in Afghanistan, clues about his past had been leaking out and accelerated with his naming.

A "model soldier," some colleagues said. At 38, more mature and stable than many the United States sends to fight. Veteran of three tours to Iraq, a humble warrior who described his service to neighbors as "just his job."

There's more, of course. A 2002 arrest for assaulting a girlfriend. A drunken-driving arrest in 2005. A hit-and-run charge, later dismissed, from 2008. Disappointment at being passed over for promotion. Rumored marital problems, denied by his attorney.

Resistance to another overseas tour, this one to Afghanistan in December. Possible post-traumatic stress disorder from a brain injury and losing part of a foot. Indications that he saw a colleague blown up the night before his rampage. Drinking alcohol on base in Afghanistan, against orders.

And a history of fraud stemming from his pre-Army days as a stock trader, including a $1.4 million judgment for swindling an elderly Ohio couple. Two underwater mortgages for homes near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

In tough economic times, too many Americans are upside-down on their mortgages. Tens of thousands struggle with workplace disappointment. Many have minor criminal records; many more might not always get along with their spouses. And, yes, many of them serve with honor in the U.S. military.

Do Bales's clues add up to stalking and shooting innocent civilians, including women and young children, in a war zone, and burning their bodies?

Festering grievance, frustration over life's rough spots, is not uncommon. Mass murder is.

The fact remains that this is what happened in Panjwai district in southern Afghanistan, as the U.S. mission, more than a decade old, faces increased difficulty and scrutiny. Bales' act, as alleged, would rank among the most heinous war crimes in American history.

What the Army must reconcile is whether Bales was fit to serve and should have been sent in again. Did the Army miss indicators, as it did with Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood gunman? He, too, told superiors he did not want to go over, although in his case it was for reasons of Muslim faith.

Does the U.S. military have sufficient safeguards in place to screen its members? Did repeated overseas deployments in an all-volunteer era place inordinate stress on an embittered Army staff sergeant already wrestling with problems at home?

No matter your position on war and America's place in the world, these questions demand answers. Ultimately, Bales will be held accountable for his actions. It would be absurd to believe that the Army sent him into battle to massacre civilians, but if the Army missed or ignored factors that may have contributed to his crimes, it must be held accountable, too.

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