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Witness: Sgt. Bales, accused of Afghan massacre, was deemed a top soldier

Lois Silver/Reuters

A courtroom sketch shows U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, center, and his defense attorneys Emma Scanlan, second from left, and Maj. Gregory Malson, left, listen to witness Sgt. Jason McLaughlin (R) testify at a U.S. Courts Martial pre-trial proceeding, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington on Monday. Col. Lee Demecky, top center, is seen presiding over the hearing.

Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of carrying out a massacre of Afghan villagers in March, had been chosen for an especially challenging assignment in southern Afghanistan because he was deemed a top soldier, according to testimony on Wednesday by 1st Sgt. Vernon Bigham, the News Tribune reported.

"We needed to put our best guys" with a Special Forces team at Village Stability Platform Belambay, the Tribune said, quoting Bigham, who testified over a video teleconference link from Kandahar Air Field to the hearings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

Defense attorneys called witnesses Wednesday in hearings that mark the start of the military justice process for Bales, who is accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan villagers, mostly women and children, in a pre-dawn rampage on March 11.

Bales seemed remorseful after he was taken into custody and seemed to want to confess, but Bigham discouraged it, according to the testimony.

"He invoked his rights, so I didn't want him to talk about those things to me," said Bigham.

Bigham's testimony painted a picture of Bales as a capable soldier whom he was trying to groom for a promotion, according the the Tribune. He said that Bales missed the cut for 2011 sergeant first class promotion and was disappointed.

The mission he was on, as part of an attachment to Special Forces across southern Afghanistan, split up the company of men across 14 different sites, limiting normal oversight of the soldiers, he said.

"We gave up control of our guys" to the Special Forces teams, Bigham said.

In testimony later on Wednesday, Special Agent Matthew Hoffman said U.S. Army criminal investigators could not reach the scene of the alleged massacre for three weeks, because American and Afghan leaders considered the area too dangerous.

Focus on Bales' state of mind
The Article 32 hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., where Bales is based, are to determine whether there is enough evidence to put Bales through a full court martial.

Proceedings started Monday with prosecutors laying out their version of the events. They said the sergeant acted alone and with "chilling premeditation," leaving his base in Kandahar province twice in one night and killing 16 people, mostly women and children in nearby villages as they slept.

Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder, as well as charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.

Military prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The defense team has not revealed its strategy, but lead civilian defense attorney John Henry Browne has suggested over the past few months that Bales may not have acted alone and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Bales was on his fourth combat deployment in 11 years and suffered a concussive head injury in a previous deployment.

Bales has not participated in a medical evaluation known as a "sanity board," because his lawyers have objected to having him meet with Army doctors without them present.

The defendant has appeared in court wearing camouflage fatigues with his head shaved, but has remained silent except to say he understands the charges and his rights. Bales has not entered a plea, and is not expected to testify.

Conflicting accounts
On Tuesday, Bales' defense team began calling witnesses who gave testimony that appeared to cast doubt on the assertion that Bales acted entirely alone.

Testifying Tuesday, Private First Class Derek Guinn said he was told by Afghan guards that two U.S. soldiers were seen entering the compound in the early hours of March 11, and one was seen leaving again.

But Guinn, who spoke to the guards through an interpreter, said he personally did not see anyone leaving or entering Camp Belambay.

His testimony was at odds with the U.S. Army prosecutor's case — supported by several witnesses on Monday — that Bales, 39, left and entered twice on his own, and was solely responsible for the Afghans' deaths.

Witnesses from the Afghan villages where the alleged killing spree took place are set to testify on Friday via video link to the hearings, expected to last two weeks. Some villagers have said that more than one U.S. soldier was present during the attacks.

Guinn's testimony was the first notable discrepancy from the version of events laid out by military prosecutors on Monday.

Covered in blood
In the first session of the hearing, lead prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse said Bales alone was responsible for the deaths, in two premeditated attacks. He showed the court a video taken from a surveillance balloon apparently of Bales returning to the base for a second time, just before 5 a.m.

An Army medic testified on Tuesday that he saw Bales covered in blood and that he knew from experience that the blood was not his own.

The medic, Sgt. First Class James Stillwell, said he asked Bales where the blood came from and where he had been.

Bales responded with a shrug, Stillwell testified, and then said, "If I tell you, you guys will have to testify against me."

The shooting, which if proven at trial would be the worst civilian slaughter by U.S. forces since the Vietnam War, eroded already-strained U.S.-Afghan ties after over a decade of conflict in the country.

NBC News' Kari Huus, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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