By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, March 26 (Reuters) - The wife of a U.S. Army sergeant accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians this month said she does not think her husband could have carried out the massacre as he was like a child himself and would not have harmed children.
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.
Karilyn Bales, speaking publicly for the first time since the March 11 shootings in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, told NBC's "Today" show she had recently spoken to her husband twice, but did not directly ask him if or how he was involved.
"I just don't think he was involved," she said in the interview. "This is not him. It's not him.
"He seemed a bit confused as to where he was and why he was there," she said.
She said Bales, who is being held at Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, 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. It's heartbreaking."
Karilyn Bales said her husband's latest mission seemed more intense than his past tours, but there was no question that he was mentally and physically cleared to deploy.
He did not appear to show signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and there were no nightmares or bouts of erratic behavior, she said.
Still, her family was unprepared before he went to Afghanistan for the news that Bales 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.
The incident in southern Afghanistan has further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than 10 years of war.
If convicted, Bales could face the death penalty and a mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment with eligibility for parole.
A legal defense fund has been set up for Bales, his wife said.
"I'm waiting to hear what actually is true," she told NBC. "I don't think anything will really change my mind in believing that he did not do this, that this is not what is it appears to be." (Reporting By Susan Heavey; Editing by David Brunnstrom)