By Lori Hurlebaus, Courage to Resist. March 29, 2007
On March 6, 35-year-old Army medic, Iraq veteran, and conscientious objector Agustín Aguayo, was sentenced to eight months in a military stockade for desertion and missing movement at the US Army’s Leighton Barracks in Wurzburg, Germany. Having already served 161 days in confinement since turning himself in at the Fort Irwin Army base in southern California, Agustín is expected to be released from confinement on April 18. Though happy he will be released in a few weeks and reunited with his family, Agustín noted that the desertion conviction “hurt his heart.”
On behalf of Courage to Resist, I traveled to Germany with Agustín’s family in order to provide whatever continuing logistical and political support we could during this time—and make contacts with activists in Germany also organizing in support of the U.S. troops stationed in Germany who are questioning their orders to take part in occupation wars for empire.
Wife Helga and daughters gather strength
The Aguayo’s have been fighting for almost three years for Agustín to be recognized as a conscientious objector. Most of that time they spent fighting quietly on a US Army base in Schweinfurt, Germany. That all changed when the US Army attempted to re-deploy Agustín to Iraq by force September 2, 2006. He resisted by escaping through his bedroom window.
Agustín’s wife Helga, their twin 11-year-old daughters Raquel and Rebecca, and Agustín’s mother Susana Aguayo have tirelessly campaigned for his release from the Army since the day he turned himself on September 26 after holding a press conference in Los Angeles. They have shared Agustín’s story of courage and determination at anti-war rallies, high schools, colleges, and with the media. They issued a challenge to the anti-war movement to support his case and built a successful campaign of public support.
At a rally outside the gates of Fort Lewis, Washington during the court martial of Iraq War resister Lt. Ehren Watada, Helga told the crowd, “My husband is a conscientious objector, but the Army made him become a war resister. Following the rules, staying quiet for nearly three years has taken us nowhere.. We are here because we want to share our story and we want to ask for your help, and your support, because we need it. We are here to support Ehren [and his family], because we know as a family what they are going through.”
Helga has become a focus of a grassroots campaign, now led by three generations of Aguayo women, demanding justice and freedom for Agustín and all military resisters.
Movement rallies to support anti-war hero
The court martial in Germany was attended by members of the Aguayo family, including Helga, Raquel, Rebecca, and Agustín’s parents, Susana and Agustín Sr. and members of Helga’s family as well. Over 30 supporters from across Germany and the U.S. joined the Aguayo’s and filled the courtroom and spilled into a overflow room. Meanwhile, more than a dozen supporters held vigil outside the gates of the barracks during the court martial.
Supporters attending the trial included members of German peace groups including American Voices Abroad Military Project, Munich American Peace Committee, Military Counseling Network, Connection e.V. and Tübingen Progressive Americans, as well as an observer from Amnesty International. Despite the distance, I was joined by the Executive Director of Iraq Veteran’s Against the War Kelly Dougherty, and Fernando Suarez del Solar of Guerrero Azteca Project. As a result of Susana Aguayo’s international lobbying effort on behalf of her Mexican born son, the Mexican Consulate in Berlin sent an official observer to the trial.
Walking patrol without ammo in Iraq
Agustín first applied for a conscientious objection discharge just before deploying to Iraq in February 2004. He deployed to Iraq while his application was processed and served as a combat medic with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in Tikrit, Iraq—all the while refusing to load his weapon though he was assigned combat patrol duties.
Despite initial favorable reviews of his application for discharge by Army interviewers, his application was later denied. In November 2005 Agustín filed an appeal in federal court challenging that denial. While his appeal was pending, he was then ordered to redeploy to Iraq in September 2006.
Lt. Aaron Roberts, Agustín’s medical platoon leader since October 2005 and a witness for the prosecution during his trial, testified that he “never saw Aguayo touch a weapon,” and that he was “hoping the chain of command would not deploy him with the unit.” He suggested to the command that Agustín be left with a rear detachment unit. This recommendation was supported at the platoon level, but the command ordered him deployed anyway. Robert’s also testified that, “Everything we asked Aguayo to do besides carry a weapon he did without question and did it well.”
Resisting immoral war and occupation
Agustín intentionally missed his unit’s deployment to Iraq on September 1. He turned himself in to the military police the next day expecting to be court martialed. Instead, his commanders took him to his home to pack up his gear and deploy. “They told us he would be taken to Iraq by force. That they would take him in shackles if need be,” explained Helga, Agustín’s wife of 15 years.
Seeing no other choice, Agustín escaped out of a window from his home on the Army base in Schweinfurt, Germany and made his way back to the U.S. Just 24 days after going AWOL, he held a very well attended press conference at “La Placita Olivera” (Mission Los Angeles) on September 26. A convoy of supporters then drove Agustín to the Fort Irwin Army Base at the edge of California’s Mojave Desert where he surrendered to military authorities.
“I have come to believe that it is wrong to destroy life, that it is wrong to use war, that it is immoral, and I can no longer go down this path,” Agustín explained to the media and the crowd of supporters. Less than a week later he was taken back to Germany and imprisoned. He was eventually to be charged with not only missing troop movement, and faced up to seven years in prison.
Agustín, having already served a tour in Iraq without loading his weapon, explained at his court martial why he felt he had no other choice than to miss his unit’s deployment and go AWOL especially when faced with a forced deployment to Iraq. “My experiences in Iraq made my convictions stronger … In the end I felt that I had to listen to my conscience … I sincerely believe that I am a conscientious objector. My life reflects it. It’s what I’ve become at the very core of myself.”
The court martial of Spc. Aguayo
Although only AWOL for three weeks, Agustín was charged with desertion. To prove this “short form desertion” the government must prove that the intent was to “avoid hazardous duty” and “shirk important service”. But what were the duties that Spc. Aguayo was expected to perform?
What became evident in the court martial was that Agustín’s commanders knew that he was unwilling to train with weapons and would continue to refuse to train with or carry a weapon. His unit sergeant and his medical platoon leader both expected, and told him, that they would eventually “chapter him out” (administratively discharge him).
Sgt. Steven Garcia, Agustín’s unit sergeant, testified that he had had conversations with Aguayo in which he told him of his plan to “chapter him out”. David Court clarified, “You told Aguayo you would write him up for Article 15’s and he will be chaptered?” Sgt. Garcia, “Yes”.
Lt. Roberts also testified that “morale has not suffered overall” within his unit. But, in what was to be a foreshadowing of the governments argument in sentencing, Sgt. Garcia testified that, “If twenty other soldiers did what Aguayo did we would have a problem.”
All prosecution witnesses testified that they know of no soldier in Iraq who does not carry a weapon. Is it “important service” to deploy, refuse to draw a weapon, and be discharged?
In closing statements of the sentencing phase, Army co-prosecutor Capt. Neuhauser argued that Aguayo should be sentenced to two years confinement to set an example to other soldiers, “It is not OK to abandon your brothers in arms.” She further stated Agustín’s stand was “an insult to soldiers who deployed”. She argued that it must be demonstrated by imprisoning Agustín Aguayo that “running away when you don’t agree with your superior officers will be punished.”
Judge Col. R. Peter Masterton, however, disagreed with the prosecution and sentenced Aguayo to just eight months confinement.
Agustín’s civilian attorney, David Court, suspected a lesser sentence was handed down because the judge believed that Agustín was sincerely a conscientious objector (C.O.). “I believe that Agustín in his closing comments was compelling enough that the judge probably came to the conclusion ‘he thinks he’s a C.O. regardless of what the Army says and because he believes he is a C.O. that’s why he did what he did’. I suspect that the judge thinks he did not act with dishonor. It appeared that at the end the issue was what is the punishment for a conscientious objector who follows his conscience and not the dictates of the Uniform Code of Military Justice?”
The prosecution’s case relied heavily on proving the “missing movement” charge to which Agustín admitted intentionally missing. David Court explained, “The problem that I saw with the case from the beginning was the way it was charged. They were using the exact same evidence to prove both charges.” He says it will be one of the many issues that will be reviewed on appeal. “Legally I was arguing to the judge, in a motion that we made a month ago, that the government should not be able to do that. They should be required to pick one or the other because the desertion has a much more serious potential sentence.”
It seems clear to me that the intent of the U.S. Army of charging and sentencing this case was deterring other soldiers from making a similar stand. The US Army asked for 2 years imprisonment to send a message to other soldiers, but the example of courage that Agustín is setting for other soldiers is far more powerful than the one the government is trying to make.
Agustín’s wife Helga also credits the public support campaign. Without the support, she does not believe that they would have been able to afford a civilian attorney, or that so much attention would be focused on his case.
David Court in his closing comments stated, “There have been many people throughout history who have listened to their conscience rather than the law. [Agustín has] Courage for his convictions, now has a conviction for his courage.”
Aguayo’s to continue fight against war, in support of war resisters
“I think that the military took a harsh stance to tell other soldiers that if they object to war because of their conscience they will be labeled a deserter,” said Helga Aguayo after the court martial.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable to me, and I’m sure to Agustín, that after him serving in Iraq for a year, being stop-lossed and having a good record in the military up until he was forced to go AWOL, that he has a bad conduct discharge and has been convicted as a deserter. The only thing we can do is continue to fight.
“He needs to be recognized by the military courts, and by the federal courts, as a conscientious objector. We have decided as a family to pursue it is as much as we can until we get the resolution that is just. We need to fight this not just for us, but for any future soldier that finds themselves in this position. We will continue to fight for other soldiers.
“When we started this it was just about Augie, but now it’s much bigger than that. It means a great deal to our family that this is something that has become bigger than us. I want the girls to see that there are things worth fighting for. I want our lives to have some meaning. I want, as a family, to work toward making the world better. As a family it has empowered us.
“I think Augie is an amazing person. He’s put everything on the line for just doing what he believes, doing what his conscience has dictated to him. Finally giving his conscience a voice because he denied it for so long and when someone is courageous among such adversity how can you say he is not sincere and he is not doing something meaningful? It is meaningful because of the fact he is helping other people think about these issues.
“I’m sure that people in the military question themselves, I’m sure that there is a ripple effect. I’m so proud that he is helping to stop the war. Agustín IS contributing to stopping this war. Soldiers read his story and they have to question their own values. We both agreed that every tear we shed and every drop of sweat was worth it to change one person’s mind.”
Please consider a donation to the Aguayo defense fund.