An Open Letter to Kari Bales, Wife of Soldier Accused of 16 Afghan Deaths

writingUpdate: for those who have asked, here is the website for contributions to the Bales Family.  BALES LEGAL DEFENSE FUND

Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is now sitting in a holding cell on US soil awaiting a visit from his lawyers after being named as the soldier suspected of shooting 16 Afghan civilians. His name was released Friday, and with it a frenzy of media speculation about his four tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, failed or botched PTSD diagnoses, the undue pressures that may have been created by his financial woes and professional difficulties, and allegations that he has had run-ins with the law that reveal a challenge with anger management. Neighbors and fellow soldiers describe him as heroic and exemplary and demand that these allegations, if true, are a complete aberration from the man they know.

And yet in all this flurry and speculation, the only person I can think of is Karilyn Bales, his wife of seven years.

I combed through internet pages looking for the blog that Ms. Bales reportedly wrote, in an effort to get a picture of her military life experience. I was horrified to come across a comment from a poster identified only as “Afghanistan” in response to a comment Kari Bales made on an unrelated website. The comment said “It is strange to see a wife of a person who killed 16 innocent people, including 9 children, posted here… I hope justice serves well and he burns in hell.” Similar sentiments were easy to find in the comments on every major news story reporting the emerging details. And it sickened me. I thought about what her life on base must be like in these days. And I cried.

*   *   *

Dear Kari,

I can’t imagine the thud you felt in your heart and the ice that coursed in your veins when you heard a knock and saw a uniform standing at your front door. I can’t fully imagine the fear and the shock and the way that you couldn’t breathe as you thought about what this visit could possibly be about. Was probably about.

And then, the relief in your stomach that quickly turned to sickness when the shock wore off that your husband was alive, only to be told that something terrible had happened for which your husband was the primary suspect. Something very very horrible that you could never understand or imagine your husband, the father of your own children, embarking into the early morning hours to accomplish. I can’t imagine the questions that flooded your brain like a rush of moving water, threatening to drown you and offering no relief for a gasp of air.

What exactly happened? Has he been injured? Where is he now? Is he safe? When can I talk to him? When can I see him? Why can’t I see him? Am I in trouble? Is there anyone I can call? Is there anything I can say? Anything I can’t say? How do you know it’s really true? Do I hire an attorney … how much will that cost? Where will I get the money? Is he even getting a military paycheck now?

And I can only imagine what you felt as you stared blankly at the officer who arrived without any answers to give.

I can’t imagine the stress you were under when you were told that you needed to pack up your things and move onto the base for your own protection, a protection that meant you would be safe from the media but surrounded by people who stared and judged you. And I can’t imagine how that stress turned into shooting pain as you heard a baby down the hallway …

What will I tell the kids when they ask whether daddy is coming home? If they convict him, will he ever see them again? How will I explain what’s happening when people ask me questions in front of them? Will the media know before they do? How will I ever explain it to them if it’s true? How will I ever explain it if it’s not true and I don’t do everything in my power to prove it?

And when I thought of my own husband and my own children, and how devastating it would be, I sat at my own dinner table with my mother, another military wife, and we cried for you tonight, thinking about how alone and isolated you must feel right now …

Why is this happening? How could this happen … Was there something I didn’t see? What was in that last phone call, that last email, that I missed? Should I have begged him to stay home? Would it have made a difference? Why did they send him back again? Will they want to question me? Can I talk to anyone before I’m questioned? Did it even happen that way? Who can I talk to? Who can I trust? Who can hold me and cry with me and tell me that this is all just a bad dream?

Where will we go? What will we do? How long will this take? Who is going to take care of me? Of us?!

I just can’t imagine.

But Kari, in the absence of information, I can still offer you this: I want you to know that I don’t condemn you for being married to a man who has been accused, even though there will be venomous vipers spewing their hatred toward your entire family. I know that no matter what, it isn’t you. I know that there is nothing you could have done to prevent what happened. And I know you are hurting.

I’m praying for you. All of you.

Love,

Lori Volkman

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Fish-infested Waters

I haven’t written much since my husband came home from the Middle East. Yeah, there was the rush from settling in after homecoming and the visitors and the family and the friends. And then there was Husband’s return to his civilian job and the whole readjustment-thingy. But really, it was the usual insanity. The real reason I didn’t write: reintegration sucked the whole living life out of me.

I really haven’t felt like writing about it. Or anything else for that matter.

Look it’s hard to explain if you haven’t done it, but when your lover first comes home from a long military deployment, and the shininess wears off, you start to stare when he’s not watching. I’m waiting to see if he unravels. And if he doesn’t, I might even pull on that dangling string.

I want to know if he’s here, with us, or still out there, in the desert.

Let me try to explain.

I spent most of my Navy Brat summers in coastal towns with beautiful beaches. I bounced around between Corpus Christi Texas, Orange Park Florida, Coronado California, and Honolulu Hawaii. I laugh when people ask me if it was hard being a military brat considering my residential repertoire. I often fall asleep to my wave machine and dream of beach memories.

In the absence of a “home town” that percussive sound is the glue that sticks my childhood together.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school, I was a sunburned haole girl living in Hawaii. I had a hand-me-down surf board which wasn’t anything glamorous and I wasn’t any good at all. But we all had surf boards and bubble-gum scented wax, and we all had sand rashes on our bellies. And we had no idea how much fun we were having.

Somewhere along the way that summer I befriended a group of locals from Haliewa who convinced me to come surfing. And I found myself out on the North Shore with four Portagee boys who knew all the unmarked public access points to the hidden beaches along that coast. I went to some “secret beach” with them that summer, which still horrifies my father.

This was summer, so we didn’t expect big waves, but this day was particularly lazy, even for summer. We sat in a flat glassy spot in a neat line, the waves bunching up slowly and slushing out underneath us. We gripped the pointy points of our boards and dipped the backs of them into the water, our legs dangling down and swirling us around. As we talked we squinted for a set, shifting our gaze between the horizon and our own floating shadows on the sand below.

Suddenly the boy to my left pointed a sharp finger at the water, and I saw a huge dark black fish off my starboard side, its crisp edges contrasting sharply with the bright sand that seemed to glow underneath it. It jerked and flipped its tail, and the boy called “shark” much like a kid calling “car” in a street basketball game.

My veins popped and adrenaline made my ears swell with sound. My instinct was to practically climb inside of myself, sucking my limbs up tight. I laid still, keeping every body part out of the water except for my poor little fingertips, which I was forced to dip into the water in order to hang on and keep from plunging headlong into the ocean. I still remember the gritty wax against my cheek as I looked across at Portagee Bo, who had laid his own face down on his board sideways. He was looking into my eyes, just like a murder scene in a movie where the camera does a close up of a dying man as his eyeballs go vacant.

I remember the next moment clearly. I looked into his eyes, and I peed. I wondered if sharks could smell pee in the water like they smelled blood. And I wondered if Portagee Bo could smell pee, too.

Somebody finally got up the courage to look, and no more big black fishies were in sight. A small wave set of minimal worth rolled in, and we rode it expertly all the way to shore without putting a single toe in the water.

PTSD

Flickr photographer: Slapshots

And that’s just like reintegration. You’re there, sitting on that surf board, not expecting any big waves and just enjoying the company. But soon the slush that comes along is disappointing and unsatisfying. So you start to spend time glancing at your own floating shadow, imagining that some latent PTSD is lurking below.I go back and forth between the comfort in knowing that PTSD would explain the gap between me and my husband, and the fear that it might not be the reason we are still so disconnected.

Some days I’ve curled up into a tiny ball and defenselessly prayed that I would not be fatally wounded by my own fear. I’ve instinctively sucked inside of myself and just waited for the bad feelings to go away. I’ve looked over at other spouses nearby and seen the vacant look in their eyes. And I’ve been too afraid to peek over the edge of the board. I have held every muscle in my body tight, trying desperately not to fall off. And I’ve been forced to dip my fingertips into the water, because it’s the only thing that would save me from making that fatal splash.

But finally, you garner the courage to look down into the water. You just can’t sit there waiting to be eaten by a creature that may not even exist. Nobody is coming by to rescue you. You have to be willing to stick your neck out and peer straight into the water.

So far, it’s empty down there. There’s my own hovering shadow, but no sharks. In fact, I’m aware there’s a very real possibility it was just a fish the whole time. And as time passes, I do get braver. I know this. I can feel it deep inside of me. Plus, there’s the fact that I haven’t peed myself in a very, very long time.

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