From soldier to Activist

Agustín Aguayo talks to Thousand Oaks audience about journey from Iraq to the Brigg

By Joan Trossman Bien 08/02/2007

Listening to soft-spoken and slightly built Agustín Aguayo speak about his tour of Iraq as an Army medic, the rejection of his application to be classified as a conscientious objector, his days of going AWOL while stationed in Germany awaiting a deployment to Iraq, and his quest for the ultimate legal redemption, one has a difficult time reconciling his demeanor with the larger-than-life experiences he described.

Speaking to a mostly sympathetic and anti-war crowd of about 70 people at the Thousand Oaks Library last Thursday evening, Aguayo, 35, recounted his unsuccessful journey within the military structure to be discharged as a conscientious objector. His claim was ultimately rejected by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and he finished serving the final six weeks of an eight-month sentence in a military prison.

TO BE TRULY AMERICAN

Aguayo, born in Mexico, and his wife, Helga, born in Guatemala, became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2000. Both were attending community college when the 9/11 attacks occurred. After finishing school, Aguayo worked the night shift at a Home Depot although he had an associate’s degree in business administration. He enlisted in the Army in 2002 and began his service in early 2003. During his initial training, Aguayo said he began a transformation during which he realized that his conscience would not let him kill another human being. He said he did not carry a loaded weapon even during guard duty. But he kept this information from the other soldiers. Shortly after receiving orders to deploy to Iraq, Aguayo said he applied for conscientious objector status.

Helga Aguayo, who also spoke to the group, said she is often asked why her husband enlisted in the first place. She said he was interested in the education benefits that would follow his active service. She also said he had another reason. “To be truly American and to give back to the country.”

Agustín Aguayo said he was trained to be an Army medic, which the military classifies as a noncombatant position. He said he believed, as such, his experience in Iraq would be similar to a peacekeeping mission. But he soon learned it would be far different than what he had anticipated.

Aguayo related a discussion he had with other medics upon his arrival in Iraq.

“They said to us, if you guys think as medics that you have to follow the Geneva Conventions, you’re very wrong,” he said. “This is Iraq. This is the real thing.”

Aguayo said he was warned that his job went far beyond merely treating the wounded.

“If it moves, you fire at it,” He said he was told. “You have to talk to the infantrymen, that when they use their weapons, they have to finish the job. Because if they don’t, there’s more work for you guys.”

THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT LIKE US

During his deployment in Iraq, Aguayo said he participated in events which he now recalls with embarrassment.

“It was so sad,” he said. “We would harass civilians for no reason, cursing at teenagers for no reason, taking stuff from Iraqi homes for no reason. We have found the most immoral thing that could possibly be done to these people who have done nothing to us. So the message then is, these people are not like us. It’s OK to hurt them.”

After his deployment ended, Aguayo said he returned with a sense that he didn’t help anyone in Iraq.

“I came back with the sense that I supported these missions that caused great harm to people,” he said.

Aguayo decided he would not redeploy back to a combat zone. When he failed to report for his second deployment, he knew the Army would come to get him. His application for conscientious objector status had already been denied. He then turned himself in to the military police and was shocked when he learned the Army still fully expected him to go to Iraq again.

The soldiers then brought him back to his home to gather his belongings and to leave for his assignment, Aguayo said. But he refused to comply with the orders.

Helga Aguayo said the scene in her living room between her husband and the soldiers soon became ugly. She said she began to cry uncontrollably, to which the soldiers reacted by simply staring at the floor. Helga said her husband had gone to the back bedroom, under the auspices of packing his gear.

“I just kept on crying,” she said. “Forty minutes pass, and they’re still staring at the floor. What happened? Agustin had jumped out the window. That wasn’t part of the plan. We didn’t have a Plan B. Plan A was shot when they decided to forcefully deploy him.”

EXCESS LEAVE

Aguayo turned himself back in to authorities within a few days and was court martialed. He was convicted of desertion and was handed a sentence of eight months with time served. He finished the final six weeks of his sentence at a military prison in Germany.

But he continued his legal pursuit of legitimate recognition of his beliefs as a conscientious objector. His case moved through the system to the D.C Circuit Court of Appeals where his petition was denied.

“Our only alternative now is to go to the Supreme Court (of the United States). Now he is a convicted felon,” Helga Aguayo said.

Aguayo knows his chances of a positive legal resolution to his case are unlikely. But he says the Army unfairly denied his application, for discharge as a conscientious objector. Earlier, he had sued the government claiming that, under a writ of habeus corpus, the military did not have the authority to decide whether he met the qualifications.

The Department of Defense has enacted a regulation requiring enlistees who later choose to be classified as a conscientious objector to be subject to the decision of the Department of Army Conscientious Objector Review Board (DACORB). This board denied Aguayo’s application, and that decision was upheld by the federal appeals court.

The military definition of a conscientious objector as holding “(a) firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, because of religious training and belief.”

The Supreme Court broadened that definition in 1970 in Welsh v. United States. The court then held that the rules governing the military designation of conscientious objector “exempts from military all those whose consciences, spurred by deeply held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs, would give them no rest or peace if they allowed themselves to become a part of an instrument of war.”

However, in Aguayo v. Secretary of the Army, the appeals court agreed with the decision of DACORB. The reasons cited were that Aguayo’s convictions did not appear to be sincerely held.

“He has not persuasively shown how his duties as a medic are incompatible with his newly discovered beliefs,” The court said. “Aguayo did not identify any specific ways he has altered his behavior to accommodate his beliefs. Although practicing a religion is not a requirement for CO approval, PFC Aguayo has not discussed any equally significant source of his beliefs.”

The court also commented on the timing of Aguayo’s application. It said, “The beliefs Aguayo asserts all arose prior to his enlistment. A true conscientious objector who hides his beliefs to obtain the benefits of military service is not allowed then to claim CO status when called to serve.”

Aguayo finished his presentation with his explanation of why he enlisted. “When I joined the Army,” he said, “I wanted that experience to open the way for my future. I wanted to thrive as a person, as an American. I wanted to do good things for the country. I still want to do those things.”

“I am not a criminal.”

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