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2004-12-17

Exclusive: Conscientious Objector Witnessed Abuse, Killing of Iraqi Detainees at Abu Ghraib

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In a Democracy Now! national broadcast exclusive, we speak with former Army Reserve Specialist Aidan Delgado. He served in Iraq from April 2003 to April 2004 where he was deployed in Nasiriyah and Abu Ghraib. Soon after his arrival in Iraq, he sought conscientious objector status and turned in his weapon. At Abu Ghraib, he witnessed U.S. soldiers abuse and kill Iraqi detainees. After serving his full tour of duty, Aidan Delgado was finally granted conscientious objector status and was honorably discharged. [includes rush transcript ]

On the morning of September 11, 2001, New College student Aidan Delgado was at the Army recruiting station in Tampa, Florida finalizing his paperwork to enlist in the Army Reserves.

Later that morning, still at the station, Delgado watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. A year and a half later, as the US invasion of Iraq was in full swing, Delgado was shipped off to fight. Soon after his arrival in the southern city of Nasiriyah, Delgado decided he did not want to participate in the war and applied for conscientious objector status and handed in his weapon.

After six months, he was transferred to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where he served as a vehicle mechanic for his remaining tour of duty. During his time there, Delgado says he witnessed numerous cases of abuse, violence and killing of Iraqi detainees. On April 1, 2004, exactly, one year after his arrival in Iraq, Aidan Delgado returned home. He was finally granted conscientious objector status in June and was honorably discharged. Aidan Delgado joins us in our firehouse studio today.

  • Aidan Delgado, soldier in the Army Reserves. He served in Iraq from April 2003 to April 2004 where he was deployed in Nasiriyah and Abu Ghraib. He sought conscientious objector status soon after his arrival in Iraq. He was granted CO status after he served his full tour of duty in Iraq.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Welcome to Democracy Now!, Aidan.

AIDAN DELGADO: Thank you. Good to be here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tell us a little bit about your decision, first, to get into the army, and into the reserves, and what prompted you, and then how you ended up in Iraq?

AIDAN DELGADO: Well, actually, ironically, even though I enlisted on September 11, really, the reason that I joined had nothing to do with September 11. I was in school. I wasn’t doing very well. I was stagnant. I was looking for a change of scene and I thought the army would be something for a young man to do, get a little travel, do something different. Then when I signed up, it was not a big deal to be in the reserves. It was not serious military commitment, and then, after that morning of September 11, and everything changed. So, the reasons I signed are really just personal. Just go do something different, and then the reasons I ended up serving, well.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How soon after you enlisted did you learn that you were going to Iraq?

AIDAN DELGADO: Well, I heard about that after I came back from my advanced training, which was in August of 2002 or 3. So, I served about a year-and-a-half in the reserves before I was deployed, and I’d been to maybe three or four drills; a weekend here and there, once a month. And so I really didn’t have very much military experience or much of a career under my belt when I got deployed.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the situation in Nasiriyah. You first went to Nasiriyah?

AIDAN DELGADO: Yeah, when we first crossed over, we were kind of in the second wave. The third infantry division had gone ahead and had done most of the heavy fighting. We were there in the third or fourth week of the war. We moved through Nasiriyah and served in this sort of bombed out Iraqi air base called Talil in the south. At that point, the war was still going on. Nasiriyah was still hot. There was a lot of fighting going on, somewhat of an insurgency, some remnants of Saddam’s army. Mostly the threat that confronted us was unexploded ordinance and the occasional bombing or mortar shell. So, when I settled in Nasiriyah, it actually was pretty hot. There wasn’t any supply. There wasn’t any infrastructure for soldiers. We were really kind of roughing it in the desert at first. And then later as we sort of settled in, after the forces took Baghdad, then things became more stable, and Nasiriyah was much more of a permanent base.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You were telling us before the show began, that you began to have doubts early on about whether you wanted to be in the combat situation there. Can you talk a little bit about that, how your thinking evolved?

AIDAN DELGADO: Actually yeah, after I came back from my advanced training as a mechanic in August, I talked to my sergeant about the possibility of being a conscientious objector, and I didn’t feel right in the military anymore, that having become much more serious of a Buddhist and having given more consideration to it, I thought maybe the military and I were not a good fit. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to pursue that, because I was deployed to Iraq very rapid. Over there, you know, two or three months of the occupation, had really made it much more personal for me. The idea to become an objector before was kind of abstract, you know, because you’re not really a soldier, you’re just going to these weekend drills. But then when you’re in war and you’re seeing it face-to-face, it becomes much more immediate, and you just can’t ignore it anymore. And ultimately I was at such ill ease, and so miserable in the conflict, doing what I was doing that ultimately, I had to, and that’s when I turned in my weapons and said, take this back I want to be a conscientious objector.

AMY GOODMAN: Had you used your weapon.

AIDAN DELGADO: No, thank God. I had no desire to use it, and that’s why I felt no remorse at all giving it up. That just turned out to be the first step in a very long, very harrowing process to become a conscientious objector. The command was extremely hostile.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you also give in your protective gear?

AIDAN DELGADO: No. Actually, I was issued a ballistic plate, that’s like the hard shell on the front and back of the vest that actually stops bullets. Without that, the vest is virtually useless. I have been issued one, after I applied for conscientious objector status, they took it back and said that there weren’t enough and if I wasn’t a combatant that I wouldn’t need one. Which was mostly true in Nasiriyah, which it wasn’t much of a threat. However when we went to Abu Ghraib prison, we were taking 30 to 40 mortar rounds a night and the base was being routinely shelled. Then I began to feel the lack of my ballistic plates.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What was the response of your fellow soldiers in the unit to your decision?

AIDAN DELGADO: Well you know, I had a few close friends in the army that really kept me alive. But generally, they were very hostile. People knew about my background, from Egypt, they knew that I spoke some Arabic. They knew I was very sympathetic to the Arabs and very critical of the occupation. So, by and large, people called me a traitor. They didn’t want to sit with me. They didn’t want to eat with me. Didn’t want me to go on missions. They thought I wasn’t trustworthy. And that’s really what hurt the most. That I was there in Iraq, as a soldier, doing my job, working to the bone as a mechanic, and people would call me a traitor, and whisper behind my back. Only my close friends in the motor-pool who knew what kind of a person I was, knew I was sincere, ever actually supported me. The command itself was against me and did a lot of sort of punitive measures, and that’s another thing that showed just how hostile they were.

AMY GOODMAN: Like what?

AIDAN DELGADO: Well initially, they restricted me to base. I wasn’t allowed to leave. I couldn’t go out into the city anymore and talk to Iraqis. One of the few aspects of my job that I relished, going on humanitarian missions or speaking to Iraqis, getting a chance to practice my Arabic and get acquainted with the local citizens. That wasn’t so bad, you know, the war was getting really ugly. So I wasn’t too sad to be not able to go out anymore. But then they said that I couldn’t go on home leave because having applied for conscientious objector status, they were afraid I wouldn’t come back. They said I was a flight risk, simply because I said I didn’t want to kill anyone. And this was extremely distressing after eight months in Iraq. I really, really wanted to go home. Ultimately, I just pestered my command so much and became such a nuisance they finally relented after about nine, maybe ten months in Iraq. They let me take my two-week home leave.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned earlier your knowledge of Arabic and you said your time in Egypt. Can you talk a little bit about that? How you learned Arabic?

AIDAN DELGADO: Sure, actually, my father is a diplomat. He works in the overseas. I only came to the United States in 2000 to go to college. I spent all of my life before that in different countries, Thailand, Senegal. And then I spent eight years through middle school and high school in Egypt. So, I am not a fluent Arabic speaker, but I picked up slang, street enough to be able to get along and ironically, I was one of the two people in the battalion who spoke any Arabic. They ended up using me sort of as an inform translator and to help them get around and help them do things in Nasiriyah. Because I was the only one that spoke anything.

AMY GOODMAN: And what were Iraqis saying. What were you translating back?

AIDAN DELGADO: Generally at first I was just buying things, helping people get around the city. But eventually, Iraqis realizing that I spoke some Arabic would open up to me and ask me questions about when are you leaving or what are you doing here? How many are you? Things I couldn’t answer. At first, they were very friendly. It was almost a level of flowers in the streets, really. God bless you. We love you. We love George Bush. Thank you. Down with Saddam. That was in the initial months of the war. As the occupation continued, their attitude definitely soured. Six months into it, the predominant response I got was thank you, God bless you, but when are you going home. All I could say was soon, I hope. I want to go back to America, too. Then near the end in Abu Ghraib when I would occasionally meet electricians or Iraqis working in the prison, they would say, you need to go home. So.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Talk to us about some of that experience in Abu Ghraib and also the things that you saw that convinced you more than ever that you needed to get out of the army?

AIDAN DELGADO: Well, by the time I got into Abu Ghraib, I had made it clear to the command that I was very critical of the war, that I was a pacifist, virtually, that I had no interest in doing what they were doing. So they knew I was not going to play ball. They knew I was not going to tow the party line. So they tried to keep me as far away from prisoners, prison operations as possible. Ultimately, they relegated me to the very undesirable duty of working in the battalion headquarters. It was a long shift, and it was far away from my company. But there I got a good inside view of sort of the running of the prison and I got to know a lot of what was going on there. I was working in the command with bunch of officers and with sort of all of the key paperwork. That’s where I found some things that really disturbing like I discovered that the majority of prisoners at Abu Ghraib weren’t even insurgents. They weren’t even there for crimes against the coalition. They were there for petty crimes: Theft, public drunkenness. And they were here in this horrible, extremely dangerous prison. That’s when I began to feel, oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m even participating in this. Then there was sort of a series of demonstrations or prisoner protests against the conditions, against the cold, against the lack of food and the type of food. And the military’s response to these demonstrations was, I felt, extremely heavy-handed. I’m not going to say it was illegal. I don’t have the background to bring a legalistic challenge, but I will say that it was immoral, the amount of force they responded with. And I think I shared some images of prisoners beaten to within an inch of their life or dead, by the guards. And five prisoners that I know of were shot dead during a demonstration for what amounted to throwing stones. I just felt it was extremely heavy-handed. I was very disillusioned with how the military handled it.

AMY GOODMAN: Aidan Delgado we have to go to break, but when we come back, we want to continue to talk about what happened, because you were there until April of 2004. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was just breaking in the United States. But you knew about it months before. And we want to ask you about that. We’re speaking with Aidan Delgado. He served in Iraq. He applied for conscientious objector status and he ultimately got it.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Our guest is Aidan Delgado. He’s a soldier in the Army Reserves, served in Iraq from April 2003, where he was sent to Nasiriyah for 6 months then went on to Abu Ghraib, where he also spent 6 months. He applied for conscientious objector status, turned in his weapon; ultimately when he came back from Iraq, was granted CO status —- conscientious objector status. And I just want to warn our viewers—-Democracy Now! broadcasts on three hundred radio and television stations around the country, Pacifica and NPR stations, public access TV and PBS stations as well as...satellite networks….— I want to warn those who are not just listening, but viewing, that Aidan took many pictures in Iraq, and we’re going to be showing some of those pictures. Some are gruesome— what he saw, what he captured in Iraq. And if you don’t want to watch, just turn away and listen.

Tell us about Abu Ghraib, and you can also tell us about the circumstances of these photographs that you took.

AIDAN DELGADO: Generally the circumstances at Abu Ghraib were extremely grim, extremely dire. My predominant impression of the prisoners [was] they were treated with the bare minimum standards of humanity. They were in a barbed wire enclosure, they were resting on wooden platforms in mud. For a long time, they didn’t have cold weather clothing, and it was extremely cold in Baghdad. And then there was just the element of continual brutality and disregard from the soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you start to learn about the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib?

AIDAN DELGADO: You’re referring to the torture of the prisoners that came out on CNN, the scandal? We heard about that in late December, early January of 2004. We hadn’t heard the specifics, and I myself —- I was surprised at the nature of the abuse—- but that it was going on was old news to us. We’d heard that there had been some hijinks in the hard site and certain units were involved, and one of them was disgruntled and had sent a tape to CNN. We also chuckled about that, thinking, "Oh, now we’re all going to get in trouble." And much to our chagrin, our members of our command came out to us and had a little talk and they said, "You know, there’s some stuff going around but we’re all a family here, we wash our own dirty laundry. This doesn’t need to go to CNN. Nobody needs to find out about this." There was sort of an informal gag order, just an attempt to muffle what was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they acknowledge there were pictures?

AIDAN DELGADO: My impression originally was that it was a videotape. That’s what we heard. That was the main thing, that they had sent a tape to CNN.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How many soldiers, American soldiers overall, roughly, were at Abu Ghraib, do you think?

AIDAN DELGADO: Uh, several thousand.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Several thousand?

AIDAN DELGADO: Yeah, several thousand.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of your unit, you specifically were doing what at the prison?

AIDAN DELGADO: Mostly my job — by profession, I was a mechanic, so I was in charge of fixing humvees. That’s what I did a lot of the time there. However, for about two months they put me on this battalion radio duty, where I’d be like, basically, the voice of the base, the radio operator and coordinating operations. That’s when I got to see a lot of inner workings of the prison, that was the only chance I had to really go outside of my unit, outside the motor pool.

AMY GOODMAN: And on the issue of prisoners being shot, prisoners being tortured, what exactly did you witness?

AIDAN DELGADO: Within two months of being at Abu Ghraib prison, it had become really clear that the prisoners were dissatisfied, there was a lot of unrest. There were almost these continual nightly demonstrations [with] homemade banners; the prisoners would march around in the yard, protesting against not being allowed to smoke, or some conditions— cold weather, food, different circumstances. The MP’s, the military police, had experience dealing with these disturbances, and they put them down relatively peacefully. However, one day we got sort of like an alert that everyone was to get on their flak vest and grab their weapons and report to the base— to the prison camp, that is. I of course didn’t go, since I had no weapon.

AMY GOODMAN: You had given in your weapon?

AIDAN DELGADO: Yeah, I had given in my weapon long ago. So, but everyone else in my unit went out there, because there was a prisoner demonstration that had become out of control. They were throwing tent stakes and pieces of stone and debris. And they had struck one of the soldiers with a rock. He wasn’t seriously injured, but he was annoyed. And so in response, they had asked for the permission to use lethal force. It was still unclear afterwards, in the military’s very cursory investigation, whether they actually got the order to use lethal force— it was obscure. So, they opened fire with a heavy machine gun and they killed five prisoners— several of whom took several days to die. This is something that I learned about from the horse’s mouth when they came back and told me, "Oh, here is a photo of the guys we killed. I killed three, I killed two. My guy took three days to die, I shot him in the groin with a machine gun." And the command had even posted these photographs in our headquarters, and they had been very ghoulishly circulating them. It was very much a trophy-taking thing. And I remember just sort of questioning the guy, saying, "Do you really feel proud of having shot an unarmed man who threw a stone?" He was like, "Well, I’m doing my job." It was a very machismo thing, to have killed someone. I felt this immense loathing and this immense disgust for the whole incident.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the pictures that you sent, extremely bloody. People in their own blood, people shot up. Where are they from?

AIDAN DELGADO: The ones from the initial assault come from the Third Infantry division. They had gone ahead of us, and we were attached to them, served as their support. Any of the photos taken that are extremely sharp, with a telephoto lens—those come from the Third Infantry division; I was not the photographer. The grainy photos are, are myself. The prisoners who were killed, those photographs come from the people who were there. I received them from a friend of mine who— from one of the participants.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do they feel about your taking pictures?

AIDAN DELGADO: Not good, I imagine. There’s a real old boys’ club and a sense of we’re all — there’s this brotherhood mentality that we protect each other and I agree with that in some respects. But when it comes to just this blatant immorality, then I feel like I have a duty to come forward.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the fact is that many, many soldiers in Iraq brought cameras with them, right? Because I have talked to many who have taken —

AIDAN DELGADO: Thousands.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There must be thousands and thousands, downloading them into their computers...

AIDAN DELGADO: I’m sure there must be thousands of similar photos floating around. The point I want to bring up is that what happened at Abu Ghraib that came out on CNN was not anomalous in any way. When I was in the south in Nasiriyah, it was routine for members of our unit to strike Iraqi children, break bottles over people’s heads, they would drive by. This was a matter of no comment. That’s how common it was. And so, they transported all that brutality to Abu Ghraib. I can tell you that my company would not be a bad example for all of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. And there was just this aura of brutality and this aura of disconcern.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What did you feel was the signal being sent by the commanders about the treatment of civilians or the treatment of prisoners?

AIDAN DELGADO: At best the commanders absolutely ignored anything they knew was going on. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there was approval, but I would say there was tacit approval in not condemning it. Our command definitely knew about the prisoners being shot. They posted the photos in their headquarters. They knew about prisoners being beaten. But it was just very like, a prison-guard like machismo atmosphere, like, the harder you were with the prisoners, the better a soldier you were. And so there was at least a lack of concern.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Aidan Delgado, at Abu Ghraib as this was coming out— as they were taking the pictures, as the prisoners were opened fire on, as prisoners— did you hear that they were being tortured? The stories of the dogs, the stories of the sexual abuse?

AIDAN DELGADO: No. No, I never heard any of those specific incidents. All I encountered was a prison guard level brutality, like beatings or shootings. But I heard of someone having their leg shot off and then dragged on the stump, that was like the sort of… But I didn’t hear of any of the inventive tortures that came out on CNN.

AMY GOODMAN: And as you come back and now have gotten your conscientious objector status: your thoughts today about what’s happening in Iraq?

AIDAN DELGADO: Well, you know, I am a patriot despite being a conscientious objector, and I really do love the U.S., and I really want to be sort of a voice of conscience for the military. I’m not trying to denigrate soldiers and I’m not trying to undermine morale, but I really think that when something like this happens, I really want American people to think about their support for the war. And if they have this sort of unexamined support for the war, I want them to know there’s all these horrible, nasty incidents going on, that’s taking place in their name, and that they should have a sense of ownership about all that, too, in addition to opening schools and bringing democracy to Iraq. So that’s my goal and the reason I’m speaking and the reason I’m getting out here is that I want people to examine their own support for the war, and to think about all these horrible things that are a part and parcel of the occupation, like, "When I give my support for the war, I’m supporting that, too."

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the protective gear. You didn’t have it at Abu Ghraib and you weren’t able to get it, even as you came under attack from the outside, the shells, gunfire…

AIDAN DELGADO: Yes. Abu Ghraib was being routinely shelled with mortars and eight foot rockets from outside the base, from the insurgency. I had been issued a heavy ballistic plate in the south. Later, after I applied for conscientious objector status, my command said that I didn’t need it since I wouldn’t be a combatant. So I didn’t have the plate that stops bullets and heavy shrapnel. So, yeah, it was dangerous, but it really wasn’t something I could do anything about, so I just tried not to think about it, and tried to stay out of harm’s way as much as possible. But I felt that was another punitive measure, at least a repressive measure against me, for coming out with my beliefs.

AMY GOODMAN: Aidan Delgado, thank you so much for being with us. [Aidan Delgado] served in Iraq for a year, from April 2003 to 2004, April; was deployed in Nasiriyah and Abu Ghraib, and ultimately got conscientious objector status and now lives in Florida. Thank you for joining us.

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