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From Baghdad to the Brig: A Reluctant Hero for Our Times

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Message Heather Wokusch

“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation … If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” - Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967

Agustín Aguayo might not be a household name, but his struggle pierces the core of the US anti-war movement.

Aguayo, a 35-year-old Mexican-American from Los Angeles, joined the Army in 2003 yet soon realized he couldn’t take part in violence. He applied for conscientious objector (CO) status in February 2004 but was sent to Iraq anyway, where he refused to load his weapon even while on guard duty and patrols.

In an exclusive interview this week, Aguayo explained: “I was determined that I would not hurt/injure others in any way, no matter what the consequences.” He added, “I actually believe that this action of not loading my weapon kept me sane. It brought me great sadness to know some soldiers I knew had shot at people, and some soldiers I knew were hurt by the actions of others. It was so absurd.”

The Army rejected Aguayo’s bid for CO discharge during his year in Iraq, so he filed a habeas corpus after returning to a base in Germany, stating: “My conscientious objection applies to all forms and aspects of the war. An Officer once explained to me how in his view the Army was like a huge machine made of many parts that all work together to achieve the desired outcome. I know this is true. If the desired outcome is killing, I cannot be part of the ‘machine.’”

Aguayo said he still carried guilt from his 2004-2005 deployment, where he was expected to “patch-up, treat and help countless soldiers for ‘sick call’ in order to facilitate their prompt return to combatant duties.” He maintains, “I helped them get physically better and be able to go out and do the very thing I am against – kill. This is something my conscience will not allow me to do.”

The habeas corpus was denied in August 2006, and a week later, Aguayo was ordered back to Iraq.

Risking court martial and imprisonment, Aguayo went AWOL (absent without leave) on Sept. 1, 2006, surrendering to Military Police the next day. Rather than facing legal action, however, Aguayo was told he would be sent to Iraq even if it meant carrying him on the plane forcibly.

That’s when Aguayo fled to California. But less than a month later, he once again turned himself in, 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.

The saga of Agustín Aguayo has critical and wide-reaching implications. His change of heart regarding military service is mirrored in a growing anti-war sentiment across the US. And his legal woes set a precedent for other troops facing similar conflicts about deployment.

As Aguayo’s wife Helga observed after his court martial, “Fear is what motivates the Army. Fear was the prosecution's recurring theme. I know they fear others will follow.”

In early March 2007, Aguayo was convicted of desertion and missing movement. He was reduced to the lowest rank possible, stripped of pay and benefits and sentenced to eight months. With good conduct time, Aguayo was released last week, but he’s still not free.

According to Helga, who has tirelessly defended “Augie” during his ordeal, “He's under the custody of his rear-detachment unit in Germany, the same people that threatened using handcuffs and shackles to take him by force onto the plane. The same people that told me in front of our daughters that he could be put to death because he was a deserter. The circumstances are not ideal, to say the least.”

She adds, “We still do not know when they will release him under administrative, voluntary, or involuntary leave. We have to wait to see if the Commanding General will approve it, and even if it is approved he will still be in the military for the next 12-24 months active duty. Essentially, he is still property of the Army and since he is still in the Army, he has to obey Army Regulations. During this time he could potentially be charged with anything else and I always fear they will try to redeploy him to Iraq.”

As for Aguayo, he has no regrets. He looks back on his imprisonment as “a special time of reflection” and believes that in refusing to redeploy to Iraq, “I was finally true to myself.”

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Heather Wokusch is the author of The Progressives' Handbook: Get the Facts and Make a Difference Now, which went to #1 on Amazon's political activism charts in December 2007 (www.progressiveshandbook.com). Heather can be reached at (more...)
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