“The point now is how do we work together to achieve important goals. And one such goal is a democracy in Germany.” – George W. Bush, May 2006
There’s an unexpected front in the Bush administration’s “war on terror” – Germany. And the roughly 68,000 US troops stationed across the country often find themselves in the center of controversy over US foreign policy.
Take Agustín Aguayo, a Mexican-American conscientious objector (CO) formerly based in Bavaria. Aguayo unsuccessfully applied for CO status before deploying in 2004, and citing non-violence, even refused to carry a loaded weapon during his year as a combat medic in Iraq.
In late 2005, Aguayo appealed to a US Federal court on grounds that his CO status had been wrongfully denied, and after his bid was rejected, fled Germany rather than redeploy to Iraq in September 2006. Before surrendering to military authorities in California less than a month later, Aguayo held a press conference stating, “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 that path.”
Aguayo was promptly sent back to Germany and thrown in the brig. His case became something of a national cause célèbre, with prominent German newspapers reporting his eventual court martial and conviction for desertion.
Other US troops in Germany seeking early discharge have been luckier, and many can thank the Bammental-based Military Counseling Network (MCN). In fact, all seven of the conscientious objector applicants the MCN supported through the application process in 2006 ended up receiving Honorable discharges.
One was former US Army Specialist Kyle D. Huwer, who served for one and a half years before, as he puts it, “I finally came to my senses and realized that what I was doing was wrong.”
Another was former US Army Private Clifton F. Hicks, who served from the summer of 2003 to late 2005. Hicks says, “I joined to defend the people of the United States, and when I found our Army was not doing that, and that I was in fact being used to further the goals of evil men, I began to question my involvement in such an organization.”
For some troops in Germany, going AWOL (absent without leave) seems the only option, such as “John,” who took a stateside leave earlier this year and never returned.
Even John’s family does not know where he is now, and it could be for the best. His parents are avid Bush-supporters; his uncle works for a weapons manufacturer and his stepfather, for an oil company. The only person John has fleeting contact with is his girlfriend, “Sarah,” doing her best to cope with his absence.
Sarah had lived in Germany with John and is frustrated with life back in the US: “Watching the news here really makes me angry, people are so detached from reality. They increase the troop deployments from 12 to 15 months, and no one besides the military families recognizes it. They are sending back national guard people for multiple deployments, no one recognizes it. You hardly hear anything about what that puts on the families, emotionally and financially. I’m deeply mad and sad about that at the same time.”
Initially gung-ho about enlisting, John said second thoughts arose when he was repairing a phone hookup in Baghdad and spotted “Abu Ghraib” on a faulty fiberoptic cable. He felt part of something wrong: “I didn't directly have blood on my hands, but I was part of it."
John granted an exclusive interview for this article, and spoke about becoming disenchanted with the military. Of his year in Baghdad: “It was not what I was expecting at all. There are people in Iraq making HUGE sums of money profiting over poorly supervised and ill-run government contracts. When you hear about the cost of the war in Iraq, it’s this kind of thing that’s doing it, not the body armor, having to pay the soldiers a couple of meager extra bucks, or armoring the humvees. It’s paying KBR $90 for every time I turn in my laundry while paying poor Pakistani and Filipino workers who work long hours with no days off for years at a time (and handling thousands of bags of laundry) $15 a day.”
John’s unit returned to Germany in mid-2006, but he says, “We were treated like dirt still, and being late in the morning was a serious thing because they were afraid of people killing themselves overnight.”
After a few months out of Iraq, John felt “a tantalizing taste of freedom and what life should be like, not what life in the army is.” Rather than deploying to Afghanistan later this year, he approached the Military Counseling Network and decided to go AWOL.
While MCN counsels US troops on a range of early discharge possibilities, case manager Tim Huber says that conscientious objection and hardship are currently the most prevalent choices: “These two discharges reflect an expansive array of problems with the military, including problems with the morality of the current war in Iraq, family issues, a dismissive attitude on the military's part towards post-traumatic stress disorder, and a general fed-upedness towards rotational deployments with no end in sight.”