AGUSTÍN AGUAYO will face a court-martial at his base in Germany starting March 6–because he refused to abandon his principles and participate in a war he believes is illegal and immoral.
Agustín, an Army specialist, applied for conscientious objector (CO) status before his first deployment to Iraq in February 2004. He performed his duties as a medic, went on patrols and did guard duty–but without ever loading his weapons.
After the Army several times denied his application and appeals for CO status, and his unit was scheduled for a second deployment to Iraq, Agustín said he would refuse to go, and would accept whatever punishment the Army imposed. But his commanding officers tried to send him to Iraq anyway–shackled in leg irons, if necessary, they said. Agustín went absent without leave (AWOL) rather than go.
Now he faces a court-martial that could land him in a military prison for as long as seven years.
Agustín’s wife HELGA AGUAYO has led the campaign to support her husband. Here, she talks to GILLIAN RUSSOM about Agustín’s case and the growing opposition to the war among soldiers and veterans.
GILLIAN RUSSOM: CAN YOU talk about what made Agustín decide to become a conscientious objector?
HELGA AGUAYO: IN THE movies, Hollywood glamorizes the military and makes them look like such heroes, but when he started training, he realized, “I’m training to kill people.” He’s the type of person who just questions everything, and as he progressed in his training, he didn’t like the answers to the questions that he was asking himself.
Many people say, “Why would he join to begin with?” Well, when he joined, he absolutely thought that if the country asked him to do something, there would be a very good reason to do it. But he began to feel that there’s no good reason to ask someone to kill people.
GILLIAN RUSSOM: HOW DID you come to oppose the war in Iraq?
HELGA AGUAYO:IT WAS seeing what it does to military families. I’m a mother, and seeing how it affects the children and the people really got to me. That made me ask questions and do research. And this war is just completely unnecessary.
The military has a term for the wives who are left behind with the children–they call them geographical single mothers. I was a geographical single mother for over a year. And what that does to the wives and the children is just unacceptable. That’s how I began to oppose this war, but now, I’m political about it.
GILLIAN RUSSOM: WHAT DO you and Agustín believe is really behind this war?
HELGA AGUAYO:ONE OF the care packages sent to the soldiers was a book on the history of Iraq. Of course, most of the soldiers didn’t want to read it. But my husband happened to see it, picked it up and started reading it while he was in Iraq.
He said that it really changed what he believed. He was a conscientious objector–he believed that killing was wrong. But after reading that book, he realized that the war in Iraq has essentially been created for the personal gain of a few people.
What he told me was that for a few corporations, it’s in their best interests to keep the chaos going in Iraq. And he just came to believe that killing is wrong, but this war is wrong too, because it’s all motivated by money.
GILLIAN RUSSOM: WHY DID he decide to go AWOL when they tried to send him to Iraq for a second deployment?
HELGA AGUAYO: TO BE honest, he never had the plan to go AWOL–so much so that he never even took out a passport.
We never anticipated it getting as ugly as it did. We thought they would accept that he wouldn’t go, and that they would arrest him. But the night before, I said to my husband, “I know they’re going to take you to Iraq by force. I just know it.” And he said, “That’s unheard of. It just hasn’t happened.”
The next morning, we met outside the base, and he turned himself in. I’ll never forget the phone call about an hour after he turned himself in–he called me from the unit headquarters, and he said to me, “They actually think I’m still going. After everything I’ve done, they still think I’m going.”
That was when my nightmare became a reality. He said, “They’re bringing me home to grab my stuff.” And I just started hiding all his Iraq gear, thinking that if they can’t find it, they can’t take him.
Of course, that was just wishful thinking. They would have taken him regardless, which is why he jumped out the window as soon as he could. He wasn’t willing to go, and they weren’t getting that message clearly. So the only thing he could do was go AWOL.
GILLIAN RUSSOM: IS IT true that he saw the movie Sir! No Sir! shortly before he refused to deploy?
HELGA AGUAYO: YES. ONE of the workers at the GI Rights Hotline in Germany gave my husband a copy of Sir! No Sir! He was hypnotized by it. When he was watching it, it just revved him up for what he knew he might have to face.
He had already made the decision when he was in Iraq. But seeing other soldiers come out and seeing this movie about soldiers who actually stopped the war gave him the knowledge to stand by his decision.
GILLIAN RUSSOM: WHAT DO you expect from the court-martial on March 6?
HELGA AGUAYO: I EXPECT that Agustín will be found guilty, at least of being AWOL and missing movement. If he gets the desertion charge and is found guilty, he will get more time.
He’s facing seven years. Based on other soldiers’ experience–like Kevin Benderman and Camilo Mejía–the most a soldier has been in jail so far was a year, with good conduct. He’s in Germany, and they’re stricter over there. I’m just hoping it’s not more than two years.
Activists can absolutely help. Courage to Resist started this campaign “Free Agustín Aguayo” up in Seattle, and we loved it. In Germany, the German peace activists went out to the base on his birthday and demanded his freedom.
The more people who stand up and say, “We stand by him,” it sends a clear message. Not only to the military, but to soldiers who want to do the same thing, and to kids who are thinking about enlisting. They need to know the realities of what war does to families and communities. And if people want to help us on a personal level, we need fundraisers.
GILLIAN RUSSOM: WHY DO you think that Agustín and the other military resisters are important for the antiwar movement?
HELGA AGUAYO: THEY’RE IMPORTANT because they’re taking a stand that all the Americans who are against the war can’t really take. They’re making it difficult for the Army to continue their mission.
My husband’s a paramedic, and medics are needed desperately in Iraq. I think that these soldiers who stand up and say, “I won’t do it,” are frustrating the plans of these particular units.
It’s important for the antiwar movement to adopt these soldiers and say that this guy has taken a remarkable step. We need to support him because he’s doing what we would do if we were in his position.
GILLIAN RUSSOM: WHAT HAVE the effects of Agustín’s deployment and then his incarceration been on you and your family?
HELGA AGUAYO: IT’S BEEN emotionally draining for me. I consider myself a pretty assertive and strong woman, and I’ve seen myself become so stressed out, to the point where I’ve almost felt broken.
What I experienced firsthand from the military–the questioning, the searching of my home–is intimidation on such a high level. You’re not used to being interrogated and questioned by people in uniform when you’re just a regular person. It was intense, to say the least.
But they haven’t broken me, and they won’t break me. I will stand by my husband.
We will continue to fight this. If anything, it’s made us stronger. Our daughters have a resolve and have learned some valuable lessons on standing up for what you believe in. As hard as it’s been, we’ve been given this amazing voice that I never imagined having, and that’s a positive thing.
When my husband enlisted, we were very ignorant. We had both graduated from college and had no idea about history or the military. Now, our eyes are wide open.
I just found out that Los Angeles is the number-one place for military recruitment in the country. That’s unacceptable to me–the way they recruit and prey on the people who have the least.
I want to bring awareness to these issues. I’ve already started counter-recruitment, and I know Agustín is committed to that. We will never be quiet ever again.
For more information on the Agustin Aguay case go to: http://www.aguayodefense.org/
GILLIAN RUSSOM writes for the Socialist Worker.