PANJWAI, Afghanistan — Displaced by the war, Abdul Samad finally moved his large family back home to this volatile district of southern Afghanistan last year. His new house was nestled near a U.S. military base, where he considered himself safe.
But when Samad, 60, walked into his mud-walled dwelling here Sunday morning and found 11 of his relatives sprawled in all directions, shot in the head, stabbed and burned, he learned the culprit was not a Taliban insurgent. The suspected gunman was a 38-year-old U.S. staff sergeant who had slipped out of the base to kill.
The U.S. soldier is accused of killing 16 people in a bloody rampage that has further tarnished Afghan-U.S. relations.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday evening that the death penalty is a consideration as the military moves to investigate and possibly put the suspect on trial.
Panetta said the shootings must not derail the military mission in Afghanistan and pressure to do so from political leaders in Kabul and Washington must not alter that course.
"We seem to get tested almost every other day with challenges that test our leadership and our commitment to the mission that we're involved in," Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Krygzystan. "War is hell.''
An enraged President Hamid Karzai called the slayings "an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians" that cannot be forgiven. He demanded an explanation from Washington for the deaths, which included nine children and three women.
The name of the 38-year-old soldier was not released because it would be "inappropriate" to do so before charges are filed, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Panetta indicated that the soldier turned himself in and told superiors what had happened, raising the possibility that he may have confessed.
Pressed on whether the soldier confessed, Panetta said, "I suspect that was the case."
A confession would make it easier for military prosecutors to win a conviction if it was admitted as evidence at a military court-martial.
Panetta, who spoke to reporters on his plane en route to Kyrgyzstan, said that it was an Afghan soldier at the base who first noticed that the sergeant was missing.
"He reported it, they did a bed check, they had prepared a search team to go out and try to find out where he was when they got news of what had happened, and this individual then turned himself in," Panetta said.
The suspect, a trained sniper, was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after sustaining a head injury in Iraq during a vehicle rollover in 2010, the Washington Post reported, quoting two U.S. military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The soldier was subsequently declared fit for duty, the officials said.
Other U.S. military officials described the soldier as married with two children. He joined the Army 11 years ago and had served three tours of duty in Iraq. He was deployed to Afghanistan for the first time in December.
The soldier's unit, the 3rd Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, deployed to southern Afghanistan in December from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, an Army and Air Force installation near Tacoma, Wash.
The cornerstone base of the Pacific Northwest recently became a focus of public scrutiny after allegations that its military doctors had altered diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder for hundreds of soldiers.
A military probe of the base's medical center is scrutinizing assertions by staff members and soldiers that, starting in 2007, diagnoses for at least 300 service members were downgraded to lesser conditions. Some patients have alleged that the diagnoses were changed so that the military would not be responsible for their treatment and long-term care.
The commander of Lewis-McChord's Madigan Army Medical Center has been placed on leave during the investigation, and a leading forensic psychiatrist has resigned.
Some military support groups near Lewis-McChord have criticized base officials for not allowing troops sufficient time to heal between deployments from a variety of injuries.
In Afghanistan, the public response to the shootings so far has been calmer than the six days of riots and attacks after Korans were burned at Bagram Air Field, leaving 30 people dead including six U.S. soldiers.
The Taliban posted some gory photographs from the attack on their website, and photographs of the charred children circulated on many Afghan blogs and social networks, along with enraged anti-American comments.
The Afghan Parliament issued a statement saying its patience with the coalition forces was wearing thin. About 10 deputies from Kandahar walked out in protest of the killings.
Samad, the villager who lost 11 family members, said he was in too much despair to even think about how he would carry on with his life. But he said the lesson of the deadly shootings was clear: The Americans should leave.
Karzai called Samad on Sunday after the killings, and Samad, barefoot as he spoke plaintively into a satellite phone with district officials gathered around, told the president: "Either finish us or get rid of the Americans."
"We made you president, and what happens to our family?" he told Karzai.
"The Americans kill us and then burn the dead bodies."
Information from the New York Times, Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.