Robert Bales

In March 2012 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left base in the middle of the night in a manic and impaired state, intending to seek out the enemy in neighboring Taliban-controlled villages.[1] In a confused and berserk state, Robert killed sixteen civilians. Robert pleaded guilty to sixteen counts of homicide and other charges, and was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment without eligibility for parole. We are not seeking a pardon for Robert—we are seeking a commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment with eligibility for parole. Robert is currently serving his sentence at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth.

The Army knew about Robert’s PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and other mental health issues before they deployed him for a fourth time. However, the court-martial jury panel was not informed about Robert’s extensive mental health issues before they sentenced him to life without parole. Robert joined the Army on September 12, 2001 and fought with honor and distinction for a decade. Yet over the course of his first two deployments in Iraq, having witnessed and participated in every imaginable horror of war, Robert became wounded. He had no shattered bones, and his body was intact: his injury was invisible to the naked eye. But his symptoms and his suffering were no less real.

Extensive mental health evidence shows that Robert’s actions in Kandahar were the result of years of severe untreated PTSD, TBI, and self-medication with alcohol, steroids, and stimulants, which Robert had turned to as the only available way to treat his PTSD symptoms. Robert was a wounded warrior: a soldier who had fallen victim to a manic state of hypervigilance, a soldier who had been without sleep for 90 hours, a soldier who saw signs in the night sky that led him off-base to hunt Taliban insurgents, a soldier who snapped and went berserk when confronted by those he perceived as the enemy. Robert left his base on a mission, because he firmly believed that if he were to do nothing, a coordinated Taliban offensive against his outpost was imminent, and would result in the slaughter of all US soldiers and Afghan troops stationed there. In Robert’s own words, he believed that, had he done nothing that night, “forty Americans would be dead.” Robert’s hypervigilance—the direct result of his untreated PTSD in connection with his TBI and drug use—led him to this mistaken belief.

Robert does not deserve a life sentence without parole. The extensive mental health evidence should mitigate Robert’s sentence, because the traditional principles of sentencing—deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution, and incapacitation—do not justify locking him away forever. Robert maintains a deep, unfathomable remorse for the horror that he inflicted on the victims and survivors, and will carry that remorse for the rest of his life.

Robert is no exceptional, cold-blooded monster. His PTSD and trauma are not unique. Rather, as assessed by Brigadier General Stephan Xenakis, Robert’s actions were “emblematic of bigger problems: an overstretched military battered by 11 years of combat; failures by the military to properly identify and treat its weary, suffering troops; and the thin line dividing ‘normal’ behavior in war from what later is deemed ‘snapping.’”[2] Robert now lives a life of remorse and accepts responsibility for what occurred. But we ask the Army to bear its share of responsibility as well. It is proper to punish our soldiers for crimes committed in combat. Yet there must be a mechanism in place to see that such crimes never occur in the first place. Robert was not fit for duty at the time of the crime and insufficient precautions were in place to identify and support the moral and mental injuries of our fighting men and women.

By ignoring the mental health context that gave rise to Robert’s actions, the Army has ignored the underlying problem. Commuting Robert’s excessive sentence will ask the Army to accept its share of responsibility for Robert’s PTSD, TBI, and drug use, which caused Robert to commit the crime for which he is now incarcerated. The goal of preventing future similar crimes is not furthered by life imprisonment; rather, the systemic problems that gave rise to the crime can be addressed only with systemic solutions. Our clemency petition simultaneously asks the Army to more effectively screen and support their soldiers. We must protect all our soldiers against moral and mental injury. We must learn to treat them like human beings instead of like machines of war.

[1] For a recent account of Robert’s crime, see Brendan Vaughan, Robert Bales Speaks: Confessions of America’s Most Notorious War Criminal, (Oct. 21, 2015),

[2] See James Dao, At Home, Asking How “Our Bobby” Became War Crime Suspect, N.Y. Times (Mar. 18, 2012),