Neighbours of Robert Bales, the career soldier now suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians, say they were shocked to hear of the allegations against the father of two young children, whom they described as warm but guarded when discussing the years he spent away at war.

"When I heard him talk, he said … 'Yeah, that's my job. That's what I do'," said Kassie Holland. "He never expressed a lot of emotion toward it."

Speaking to his fellow soldiers, though, Bales could exult in the role. Plunged into battle in Iraq, he told an interviewer for a base newspaper in 2009 that he and his comrades proved "the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy."

As reporters swarmed Bales' neighbourhood late Friday, Holland and other neighbours shook their heads, trying but failing to reconcile the man they thought they knew with the allegations against him. Military officials say that at about 3 a.m. last Sunday, the 38-year-old staff sergeant crept away from the Army base where he was stationed in southern Afghanistan, entered two slumbering villages and unleashed a massacre, shooting his victims and setting many of the bodies on fire.

Eleven of those killed belonged to one family. Nine were children.

"I can't believe it was him," said Holland, recalling a kind-hearted neighbour who grew up in Ohio, a "happy-go-lucky" football player and a good student at Norwood High School in a suburb of Cincinnati, a former teacher said.

'I don't want to believe that he did it'

"There were no signs. It's really sad. I don't want to believe that he did it," said Jack Bouldin, a retired Norwood High School teacher who was Bales' physical education teacher.

'He wasn't thrilled about going on another deployment. He was told he wasn't going back, and then he was told he was going'—John Henry Browne, lawyer for Robert Bales

Until Friday, military officials had kept Bales' identity secret and what little was known about him remained sketchy. But with the release of his name, a still-incomplete, but sharply conflicting portrait of the man comes into focus. Part of it reveals the father and husband neighbours recall, and a soldier quietly proud of his 11-year record of service, including three tours in Iraq.

But it also shows Bales had previous brushes with trouble. In 2002, records show, he was arrested at a Tacoma, Washington state, hotel for assault on a girlfriend. Bales pleaded not guilty and was required to undergo 20 hours of anger management counselling, after which the case was dismissed. A separate hit-and-run charge was dismissed in a nearby town's municipal court three years ago, according to records.

Bales has not yet been charged in the killings in Afghanistan. He was flown Friday from Kuwait to the military's only maximum-security prison, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. When the Air Force cargo jet with the soldier aboard arrived at Kansas City International Airport, about an hour from the military prison, security was very tight, with the terminal completely blocked off. It marked the tragic end of Bales' fourth tour of duty in a war zone, one his lawyer said he had hoped to avoid.

"He wasn't thrilled about going on another deployment," said the attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle. "He was told he wasn't going back, and then he was told he was going."

Loved his country, neighbour says

A neighbour, Paul Wohlberg, recalled that when he last saw Bales in November the two men talked briefly about the soldier's imminent departure for Afghanistan.

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News crews gather as cars pass by the home of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in Lake Tapps, Wash., on March 16, 2012. Bales is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in Afghanistan. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

"I just told him to be safe. He said, 'I will. See you when I get back,"' said Wohlberg, who recalled attending barbeques at the Bales' home.

Wohlberg described Bales as a man who clearly loved his country.

"I'm sure he still does," he said.

Bales told neighbours little about his brigade's three tours of duty to Iraq. But in a 2009 article published in Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian, Bales told the interviewer about finding many dead and wounded when his unit was sent to recover a downed Apache helicopter in Iraq.

"I've never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day, 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," Bales said.

Suffered concussion, foot injury in Iraq

After returning from his second deployment to Iraq, Bales was elevated to staff sergeant. In three tours of duty, Browne says his client was injured twice. One of those injuries required the surgical removal of part of one foot. In a vehicle accident, Bales suffered a concussion, the lawyer said.

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Lawyer John Henry Browne has been asked to defend the U.S. soldier accused of shooting 16 villagers in Afghanistan. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

But by last year, the soldier had reached a disappointing juncture. Bales received more than 20 awards and commendations, including three Army Good Conduct medals. But military files show a largely unremarkable service record, absent the Purple Heart awards that would be expected following a significant injury or wound in combat.

Then he was passed over for a promotion, according to a posting by his wife on her blog, The Bales Family Adventures.

"It is very disappointed after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends," Karilyn Bales wrote early last year on the blog, which could not be independently verified. "I am sad and disappointed too, but I am also relieved, we can finally move on to the next phase of our lives."  

On Friday evening, Bales' neighbours said they did not know what to think. They gazed toward the soldier's home, where overflowing boxes were piled on the front porch and a U.S. flag leaned against the siding.

"I just can't believe Bob's the guy who did this," Wohlberg said. "A good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time."