Ready for court-martial, but not return to war

Army threatens to send conscientious objector ‘back to Iraq in handcuffs, if necessary’

FORT IRWIN, Calif. — Accompanied by his wife and peace movement supporters, Army Specialist Agustín Aguayo surrendered voluntarily to military police at Fort Irwin Army Base in California’s Mojave Desert, Sept. 26, declaring himself ready for court-martial and jail time but not more duty in Iraq.

Earlier that day, he appeared at a dramatic press conference in front of La Placita Catholic Church in downtown Los Angeles. “I do not believe that in these times killing people, war, is a way we should resolve problems,” Aguayo said. “I know that I could go to jail, and I can live with that, but I cannot anymore live with participating in a war.” He said he had arrived at the decision he could not abide war while in the service, explaining, “Seeing dead people, putting them in bags can change a person.”

In an act of civil disobedience, Aguayo, 34, went absent without leave (AWOL) on Sept. 2 from the U.S. Army base in Schweinfurt, Germany, to prevent being forcibly redeployed to Iraq.

He filed suit against the Secretary of the Army for wrongfully refusing to recognize his application for conscientious objector status. A district court judge ruled against Aguayo on Aug. 24, but he immediately appealed that decision. A three-judge federal appeals panel denied a government motion to summarily reject the suit. The case will be taken up by the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., with oral arguments scheduled for Nov. 21.

The Army’s next move could be to send Aguayo to Iraq, begin court-martial proceedings, or accept his conscientious objector application.

Aguayo enlisted in the Army in 2002, before the Iraq war, telling recruiters he wanted to serve as a medic. He says recruiters told him his college loan would be paid, he would receive medical training, and he would have non-combatant status. He applied to be recognized as a conscientious objector in February 2004 at the start of his deployment to Iraq. Nevertheless, in Iraq he was assigned combat duties, serving a year in Tikrit.

“I am not a coward,” Aguayo told the press conference hours before he turned himself in at Fort Irwin. “I went out on patrol but did not put bullets in my weapon.”

Aguayo said his CO application was supported by an Army chaplain and a psychologist, but higher officers who did not interview him recommended denial, and his application was rejected by the Army in August 2004. In addition, the Army used the Pentagon’s “stop loss” order to extend his tour of duty to September 2007 from its original January 2007 end date.

When Aguayo’s infantry division was redeployed to Iraq from Germany on Sept. 1 this year, he did not report for duty. Instead he surrendered to military police in Schweinfurt the next day. He had engaged a lawyer and was prepared for court-martial proceedings. However he was told he would be sent to Iraq by force, in handcuffs if necessary. He was taken to his residence on base to collect his gear. But he managed to exit a rear window and leave the base unobserved.

While AWOL, Aguayo contacted peace groups, seeking support for his refusal to be sent back to Iraq.

He was joined at the press conference by numerous peace leaders and activists including Fernando Suárez del Solar whose son Jesús was one of the first Iraq war fatalities, Elsa Rassbach of American Voices Abroad Military Project, clergy of La Placita Church, Center on Conscience and War, Latinos For Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Code Pink, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, Military Counseling Network and War Resisters League. Many accompanied Aguayo family in a 180-mile car caravan to Fort Irwin from the church, serving as a mobile sanctuary to protect him from being arrested before he had a chance to report voluntarily to the base.

Aguayo, a U.S. citizen who is an immigrant from Mexico, is the first Mexican American conscientious objector in the Iraq war, and the first from Los Angeles. His CO case is the first to reach a federal appeals court since 1971 during the Vietnam War. Winning the appeal would result in an honorable discharge.

“Today I am very proud of my husband, proud of his courage, proud of the example he sets for our children,” Helga Aguayo, Agustín’s wife, told the press conference. The couple has 11-year-old twin daughters. “I hope the court can see he is really a conscientious objector. I know him and I know that returning to war would be torture to his conscience … would kill him emotionally,” she said.

Aguayo will not serve as a medic anymore because treating wounded soldiers would allow them to go back into combat and kill, she told reporters.