US Soldier Convicted of Desertion Aguayo Follows His Conscience to the Brig

Agustin Aguayo, convicted by a US military court martial in Würzburg on Tuesday, says he is a conscientious objector. The US military considers him a coward. For the stalled anti-war movement, the Iraq veteran has become a symbol.

By in Würzburg, Germany


Anti-war protesters offer their support to conscientious objector Augustin Aguayo, a Mexican-American convicted of desertion in court martial proceedings at a US base in Germany on Tuesday.
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Anti-war protesters offer their support to conscientious objector Augustin Aguayo, a Mexican-American convicted of desertion in court martial proceedings at a US base in Germany on Tuesday.

Is it possible to become a conscientious objector once you have signed up to fight a war? According to United States military regulations, the answer is yes. But as confirmed by a US Army court martial in the case of former Army Specialist Agustin Aguayo near the western German city of Würzburg on Tuesday, the Army also reserves the right to answer no.

Aguayo, a 35-year-old Mexican-American from Los Angeles, served a tour of duty in Iraq as a combat medic from 2004 to 2005. Early on in basic training, however, he began to realize that he was opposed to war. When his unit was ordered to return to Iraq for a second tour of duty in the war-torn country, Aguayo decided he simply could not obey with a clear conscience. He deserted through a bedroom window.

In a small cramped courtroom on the Leighton Barracks near Würzburg, Germany on Tuesday, Aguayo was found guilty of desertion, slapped with a bad-conduct discharge, stripped of pay and benefits and sent to the brig for eight months. It could have been much worse -- the prosecution had asked for Aguayo to be locked away for two years.

"I never intended to cause any disruption," a visibly nervous Aguayo told the military judge hearing his case. "I always tried to do the best I could. I sincerely believe I am a conscientious objector. My life reflects that and it's what I have become at the very core of myself."

In the 161 days since he turned himself in to military authorities in California -- where he traveled after deserting his unit just as it was deploying to Iraq in early September last year -- Aguayo has also become something else. A symbol.

A court martial and a message

In closing arguments, an Army co-prosecutor made perfectly clear the court martial's message is for those increasing number of men and women in uniform who are dissatisfied with what they are being asked to do in Iraq: "It is not OK to abandon your brothers in arms."

Agustin Aguayo: a man of conscience
REUTERS

Agustin Aguayo: a man of conscience

But thrown in among the couple dozen journalists on hand for the trial were those for whom Aguayo symbolizes a much broader message. They were representatives of the anti-Iraq War movement in the US and in Europe. For them, Aguayo is something of a hero.

It is a role that Aguayo himself is ambivalent about taking on. For him, it was always about his changing beliefs once he entered the Army. About his growing discomfort with picking up a weapon. About his refusal to carry a loaded gun even while serving in the war zone in Iraq. Or, as his civilian defense attorney David Court put it: "This is a case of a man of conscience who did not want to break the law."

Refusing to fight in Iraq

Whether he likes it or not, though, Aguayo has become the latest in an ever-growing list of US soldiers hitting the headlines for refusing to fight in Iraq. Some, like Lt. Ehren Wutada -- who recently became the first US officer to be court martialed for opting not to obey orders sending him to Iraq -- argue that the fight is illegal. Others, like Aguayo -- and Mark Wilkerson, who was sentenced to seven months behind bars in February for desertion -- choose the conscientious objector route, saying that their belief systems have changed.

All, though, are needed by an anti-war movement that -- despite widespread disapproval of the war "state-side" -- has had difficulty gaining traction in the United States. Soldiers who oppose the war, reason those on the front lines of that movement, could be just the catalyst they need.

"Those who take a public stand give support to those (still in the military) who are against the war and thinking of resisting," Kelly Dougherty, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The only ones who can destroy the myth (that the Iraq War is necessary) are the military."

Dougherty, in Germany this week for the Aguayo court martial and one of the many on hand showing their support for the Aguayo family, was with a military police unit in the Army National Guard and served a tour of duty in the town of Nasiriyah south of Baghdad from 2003 to 2004. She became a founding member of Iraq Veterans Against the War in July 2004. Now, the group -- which at a retreat in January elected to focus more of its attention on fostering resistance within the military -- counts over 400 members, all current or former soldiers.

Other peace and anti-war groups have also recognized the potential of supporting real soldiers as they try to turn their backs on the military. Lori Hurlebaus of Courage to Resist was also in Würzburg on Tuesday. A number of groups based in Germany including Tübingen Progressive Americans and American Voices Abroad were also there.

Support for the organizations is growing. The group Veterans for Peace joins Dougherty's group in seeing rapid growth. Furthermore, nearly 1,600 active soldiers have now signed a petition to the US Congress that reads in part: "Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price." Likewise, according to the War Resisters Support Campaign in Canada, there may be as many as 200 to 300 US soldiers who have headed north across the border to escape deployment.

Help from foreign governments?

With the growing numbers has come a growing self-confidence. Dougherty and Hurlebaus, for example, are also hoping to get foreign governments, including the German government, to help resistance efforts. In fact, the two met with members of the Left Party in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, on Monday. The message? It is the responsibility of the German people to monitor what happens in German territory.

"Even if the German military was not involved in the invasion of Iraq," says Hurlebaus, "there is a military conducting a war of aggression from German soil."

Reluctant hero Aguayo, for his part, is now heading to Mannheim for his term -- and then he will be where he has wanted to be since he first filed his conscientious objector papers just days before his first deployment to Iraq in February, 2004: at home with his family. And far from any battlefields, orders to commit violence and guns.

Indeed, he had been hoping to be granted conscientious objector status from the beginning. It was only after his application was refused, despite being initially rubber-stamped by his immediate superiors, that Aguayo realized he had to move to plan B. Which wasn't much of a plan. On the evening of Sept. 1, 2006, his unit began its journey back to Iraq. And Aguayo elected not to join them. The next day, he turned himself in, only to be told that he might still be sent to Iraq. After being brought to his on-base apartment to collect his belongings, Aguayo took off out the bedroom window leaving his wife Helga in the front room.

"Until he is back, our lives are at a standstill," Helga told the court during the sentencing proceedings. In as little as 40 days, the standstill will be over.

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