By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The wife of a U.S. Army sergeant accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians this month said she does not believe her husband could have carried out the massacre and that she was confident he was fine before his latest deployment.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated 38-year-old veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was charged last week with 17 counts of murder for killing eight adults and nine children and six counts each of assault and attempted murder for attacking two other adults and four children.
The incident in southern Afghanistan has further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than 10 years of war.
Karilyn Bales, speaking publicly for the first time since the March 11 shootings in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, said in an interview aired on NBC's "Today" show on Monday that she firmly does not believe her husband was involved in the attack.
"I don't think anything will really change my mind in believing that he did not do this, that this is not what it appears to be," she told NBC.
"I just don't think he was involved," she said in the interview. "I don't know enough information. This is not him. It's not him."
Bales is being held at Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, where his wife has spoken with him twice by telephone.
"He seemed a bit confused as to where he was and why he was there," she said of his detention, adding that she did not directly ask him if or how he was involved in the killing spree.
Bales' attorney John Henry Browne has suggested he might use the soldier's mental state as a defense.
On Monday, Karilyn Bales said her husband's latest mission seemed "more intense" than his past tours in Iraq but that he had been screened mentally and physically before this latest deployment to Afghanistan and did not have any issues.
While on one of his tours in Iraq, Bales suffered a traumatic brain injury during a vehicle rollover - something his wife said she did not know about until he got back.
"He shielded me from a lot of what he went through. He's a very tough guy," she said.
While she was not completely familiar with all the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Bales said her husband did not appear to suffer from nightmares, difficulty concentrating or erratic behavior.
"I would say that a lot of people that have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have seen a lot of things that affected them. It can't not affect you," she said.
Karilyn Bales insisted her husband was a great father who would not have harmed children.
"He loves children. He's like a big kid himself ... I have no idea what happened ... but he loved children and he would not do that," she said. "It's heartbreaking."
Bales said the family was unprepared for the news that her husband would be going overseas for a fourth time.
"It was a big shock because we weren't on the schedule to be deployed again ... he didn't want to miss out on any more of his kids' lives," she said, fighting tears.
It was not clear where Karilyn Bales was and NBC would not disclose the interview location. She and the couple's two children have been moved into military lodging at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma and her once bright and happy blog on her pregnancy and life with their first child has now been blocked from public view.
The couple, who met through an online dating service and married in 2005, have a history of financial trouble at home. There is also a $1.5 million fraud judgment against Bales and a brokerage where he worked and various police reports. At the same time, Bales received several military commendations during three tours in Iraq.
A legal defense fund has been set up for Bales, his wife said. If convicted, Bales could face the death penalty and a mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment with eligibility for parole.
Asked if she felt it would be difficult to convince people to donate to the fund given the nature of the accusations, she said: "I think that all soldiers, all people deserve the best defense that they can get. And I believe he deserves the best defense, to know what happened."
(Reporting By Susan Heavey; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Bill Trott)