Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' commanding officer once recommended him for a medal of valor after a major battle in Iraq.
Bales was named on Friday as the U.S. soldier who allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians last Sunday. "I was shocked that it was him," Maj. Brent Clemmer told Austin Jenkins of the Public Radio Northwest News Network. "I am still in shock about it."
Clemmer was a captain in 2007 when he led Bales' unit in a brutal but victorious fight to recover an Apache helicopter that had gone down south of Najaf. The Battle of Zarqa, as it was called, was considered both a military and a humanitarian success for the U.S. After the fight, Clemmer described Bales' actions in combat, calling them "exceptionally valorous":
NARRATIVE TO ACCOMPANY THE AWARD OF ARMY COMMENDATION MEDAL FOR VALOR TO SGT ROBERT BALES
SGT Robert Bales, United States Army, heroically distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous conduct in the face of the enemy in Iraq as a Fire Team Leader for 1st Squad, 1st Platoon Charger Company 2-3 IN Regt, Baghdad Iraq, from 28 Jan 07 to 29 Jan 07 during OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM. Approximately 1400 on 28 Jan 07, SGT Bales was alerted that the company would be moving out to secure the site of a down apache helicopter. SGT Bales worked diligently to prepare his own fire team and to assist the platoon in preparations for movement. Upon arrival at the crash site SGT Bales deployed his team expertly while under intensive enemy fire to secure the northern flank of the crash site. SGT Bales worked all night long to assist his squad at digging in and searching for enemy personnel while in contact with a sizeable force. On the morning of 29 Jan 07 the platoon got online and began to sweep the objective area. while still under enemy fire SGT Bales with the assistance of his team move to the company CCP to establish security on the eastern flank. He then took his own initiative to establish an ECP and search all personnel entering into the area. SGT Bales assisted in the evacuation of critically wounded AIF and Iraqi civilians from the battlefield. His actions are in the finest traditions of military heroism and reflect great credit upon himself, the command and the United States Army
Clemmer himself received a Silver Star for his leadership in the Battle of Zarqa, though Bales did not receive the award Clemmer recommended. A 2009 recount of the fight from US Fed News (unavailable online) quotes Bales' description of the day:
"I've never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day," Bales said now a member of 2-3 Inf. headquarters, "for the simple fact that we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants and then afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us. I think that's the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy, someone who puts his family in harm's way like that."
Bales is now in detention at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, and like many who know him, Clemmer can't explain why.
"Robert Bales was a positive person who always had a smile on his face," Clemmer said. "He was one of those guys who was always positive."
Clemmer, too, is quoted in that 2009 article:
"There is not an army in the world, in my opinion, that can go from taking pins out of grenades and throwing them over trenches to receiving wounded, treating the wounded and taking care of an enemy that we had killed throughout the night - treating enemy combatants with that humanity."