JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty more than two months ago to killing 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, and injuring many more, condemned what he did as an "act of cowardice" Thursday and apologized repeatedly to the victims' families, his own family and his comrades in the Army.
"If I could bring their families back, I would," Staff Sgt. Robert Bales said in unsworn testimony. "I can't comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids."
He added: "I murdered their families."
Bales spoke before a military jury tasked with deciding whether he will spend the rest of his life in prison or be eligible for parole. In military court, an accused person is allowed to speak before the court unsworn without being cross-examined.
On Wednesday, prosecutors sought to portray Bales as a frustrated man with a troubling history, while his attorneys brought in witnesses that referred to "Bobby" — the class president and football player, the caring father, the good man who had been tormented by what he saw in war.
On the witness stand Thursday, with a stoic expression and in a soft voice that at times fell to a mumble, Bales recalled coming back from his first tours in Iraq unreasonably angry, with even such mundane tasks as washing the dishes capable of sparking rage, he said.
"It was difficult, ma'am," Bales said in reply to his attorney Emma Scanlan's question about the return from Iraq. "It was hard. It didn't feel right. I was angry."
He drank, he said, and became dependent on sleeping pills. Certain sounds and smells could set him off, particularly those he associated with combat. "Nothing can describe the smell," he said. "It just takes you back immediately."
He said he avoided telling anyone or seeking help for the anger, the drinking, the pills. "I didn't want to be weak," he said. "I didn't want to tell anyone. I tried to hide it."
There had been indications that the defense would present expert witnesses who could discuss Bales' mental state and the effect the war had on him psychologically, but none took the stand.
"It's hard to describe the fear," Bales said of redeploying. It escalated beyond fear of the enemy to fear of his own performance, he said, and that of his fellow soldiers: Were they doing everything they needed to in order to protect themselves?
Scanlan didn't ask about specifics of the early morning of March 11, 2012, when Bales set off on a rampage through two Afghan villages. But she asked who he thought was responsible for the massacre.
"I am," he said. "I'm responsible."
He expressed remorse to his family and fellow soldiers.
"Sorry I disgraced you," he said, turning to look at members of his family, including his wife, mother and brother.
He showed the most emotion, however, when it came to the Army. "I love the Army," he said. "I stood next to some really good guys, some real heroes.... I can't say I'm sorry to those guys enough."
After he finished, he returned to the defense table. His wife, sitting yards behind him, was crying. Bales bowed his head and stared at the table.