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Exclusive: AWOL Iraq Veteran Turns Himself In Instead of Returning to Iraq; Faces Five Years in Prison

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Army medic Agustin Aguayo and his wife, Helga, speak to Democracy Now. Later today Agustin plans to turn himself in to the military weeks after he went AWOL at his base in Germany. He faces five yeas in prison. [includes rush transcript]

Today, a Democracy Now exclusive. Army medic Agustin Aguayo. He applied for Conscientious Objector status and was denied. He was deployed to Iraq for a year, he refused to load his gun no matter how dangerous the situation. Earlier this month, Aguayo went AWOL at his base in Germany after the military ordered him to return for a second deployment. Today–Agustin Aguayo will turn himself in to the military. His lawyer says he could face up to five years in prison.

Agustin Aguayo and his wife Helga joined us yesterday at a studio in Los Angeles for an extended conversation. I began by asking Agustin to talk about his decision to join the military.

  • Agustin Aguayo, AWOL Army medic who served in Iraq
  • Helga Aguayo, wife of Agustin Aguayo

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, Agustin Aguayo and his wife Helga joined us in the studio in Los Angeles for an extended conversation. It was his first national broadcast discussing his situation. I began by asking Agustin to talk about his decision to join the military.

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes, I signed my contract November of 2002. And when I did it, I was very optimistic. I was full of joy and eager to start. I wanted to do good things for my country. I wanted to help people. I wanted positive things in my life. I was eager to become a good soldier.

AMY GOODMAN: And what motivated you then to join the military in 2002?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Well, I was at a crossroads in my life. I felt like I had never really done anything for my country. And I saw it also as a way to improve my life. What really appealed to me was the college opportunities.

AMY GOODMAN: So you joined. And what did you join?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: The Army.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did you sign up?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I was living in Palmdale, so I went to the recruiters there. And you actually sign your contract in Los Angeles in an office.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, when were you deployed?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: February of 2004, for a whole year.

AMY GOODMAN: And your feelings then? Were you eager then to go to Iraq?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Well, at that point a lot of things had happened to me at that point. My training had really changed me. It pushed me in to see the reality of war. Of course, I always knew there was a possibility I would go to war, and I was ready and willing to do anything that was asked of me, but at the time I — the time when I left, a lot of things were going through my mind, and I had to really search in my heart and ask myself if I could take a life.

And after — the training made me ask myself that. One of the sergeants, during the last — during the train up for the war for the Iraq, he mentioned that nothing he had ever done was similar to that training. We were driving and pointing rifles out the windows. Targets were popping up, and they were firing. And at that point, I really asked myself — I had a moment where I had to think and morally question what I was doing. And I reasoned and I found in my heart that I couldn’t take a life. So I had to be public about that, share it with my chain of command. And that’s when I decided to file for conscientious objection.

They told me, you know, ’You’re a soldier, and you have to be willing and ready to fire, destroy, if necessary.’ So I had a great deal of trouble with that at that moment in my life. I felt that the experiences up to that point culminated in me asking, "Is this right? Is this moral? Is this what God wants?" And at that moment, I said, "No, I can’t. I’m going to deploy, but I can’t take a life."

AMY GOODMAN: At the point you enlisted, at the point you signed up, this was before the invasion of Iraq. At the point you were deployed, the war had been going on for almost a year. Did that have an influence?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Well, it seemed — the war, from the beginning, seemed absurd to me, people killing each other senselessly. I think, I mean, I had not been in combat, but what was clear in my mind was, you know, there’s no way I can destroy another human life. That’s not — you know, that’s not my place on this earth.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you a medic?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes, I am a medic. And many people find that troubling. They say, "Well, you’re a medic. You’re not there to destroy people. You’re there to help people." And it’s true that I’m there to help people, but regardless of your job, if you have feelings that are against war, you know, your job’s not really going to matter, because in the end, you know, we’re always told that we’re all soldiers and, you know, we have to be ready and willing to take life.

AMY GOODMAN: To shoot?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, when did you end up going to Germany, because you went to Germany before Iraq, is that right?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes, I was assigned — after my training I was assigned duty in Germany. So I left August of 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: With your family?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I left by myself, and a few weeks later they arrived.

AMY GOODMAN: So you deployed to Iraq from Germany?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you go?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: In Iraq, I was in Tikrit, the city of Tikrit.

AMY GOODMAN: Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you do there?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I was — I did medic. My job is a medic. But while there, we did other things that were not medical. For example, I did a lot of guard duty. We had towers around the base, and which we would rotate in and out through there, four hours at a time. So I did a lot of that. And a lot of radio monitoring.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you shoot anyone?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: No. I never fired my weapon.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you carry it with you?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I carried a weapon, but I didn’t load my weapon when we left the FOB, and that —

AMY GOODMAN: The forward operating base, FOB?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes. And I tried to keep that a secret from people, but one person found out. One person found out, and he was very outraged. He was actually on vacation, and I was traveling with his group. And when he returned, his group informed him, 'You know, this guy didn't even load his weapon.’ And he was very outraged, because he thought that I had put his comrades in danger by not doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your response to that?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: My response to that is, well, if we — when you’re attacked in Iraq, you know, after the attack is over, you know, an explosion, an IED, I mean, there’s nothing you can really do. You’re going to look around and maybe you’ll find one person, two people running. If that, maybe. It’s not my job to decide who’s going to live or who’s going to die. That’s something that I’ve had to deal with morally and that I’m convinced of. Nothing is more clear in my mind that war is wrong. And I won’t be a tool of war anymore. And the end result of war is the destruction of human life, and governments use that to solve problems. And I think it’s a great tragedy of our lifetime, with so much technology, that we still feel that that solves problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Did your supervisors know, your supervising officers know that you were not loading your weapon?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I think that person took it upon himself to share it with others, but it was never brought to my attention.

AMY GOODMAN: You never told anyone, not the people up your chain of command?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you apply for conscientious objector status before you went to Iraq?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I informed my command that I would be filing. And then they started processing my work, my paperwork, as we arrived in the first few weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you get interviewed by anyone?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: By like an —

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: An investigating officer.

AMY GOODMAN: An I.O.?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes. And his recommendation, which I brought and I wanted to share with you, was that he found me to be sincere. And he recommended, for the benefit of the Army and for the benefit of me, that I be separated. Other officers also recommended separation. However, when it went up the chain all the way to the Pentagon to the board that decides, they decided against me leaving.

AMY GOODMAN: Army medic, Agustin Aguayo. We’ll return to this exclusive conversation with him. He is going to turn himself in to the military today, after holding a news conference in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be joined by the mayor after this conversation with conscientious objector, Army Specialist Agustin Aguayo. Yes, he’s turning himself in today to the military. He applied for conscientious objector status, and against the recommendations of the investigative officer, he was denied C.O. status. He’s been AWOL now for almost a month, after he refused a second deployment to Iraq, ordered to return to Iraq, despite the assessment of that officer in his case. I asked Agustin, if this was unusual.

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I’ve been told that usually when the I.O. approves it and the chaplain approves it —

AMY GOODMAN: Did the chaplain approve it?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Well, he said, "He seems sincere." Those were his words. But he also stated that doing it around the time of a deployment made it questionable. And he said, well, you know, "He seems sincere, but it’s so hard to judge a person by words." And that’s pretty much what they have. Just my words. And other people in my chain of command also supported me and believed me. I brought in witnesses. And I think that was the most powerful thing that moved the investigating officer, him hearing from my fellow soldiers, them saying, "Yes, this man is an objector to war. He’s not capable of taking a life. We believe him." And I think that’s what moved him the most to recommend that separation.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, you were in Iraq for a year?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: You came out then? You left Iraq?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes. And when I —- they had denied my claim, so when I came back -—

AMY GOODMAN: When did you hear they denied it?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: In September.

AMY GOODMAN: While you were still in Iraq?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you feel?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Well, I felt like they were denying my conscience, like they were telling me, "No, you’re not an objector to war." I felt that that was like the equivalent of telling someone, you know, "You’re not Catholic," or "You’re not Jewish. You know, you say you are, but you’re not really that." And I felt very troubled, and I informed my chain of command that I would try any legal means to fight that.

And I did. When I returned to Germany, we hired two attorneys, and they told me, 'Your case was mishandled. You have the right for the Army to open your case again and review it.' And indeed, that happened. And this takes months and months. And they reviewed it again, and they denied it one more time. This decision came February of 2005.

HELGA AGUAYO: Six.

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Oh, 2006. And the board that reviewed it decided two-to-one, two against leaving and one in favor. One supported me. So the case was then — I fought it, and I’m fighting it in federal court.

AMY GOODMAN: But they deployed you again? They tried?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: They tried. So what happened was, my immediate supervisors, they did all they could to get me out of that deployment. But in the end, the higher chain of command reasoned that I was a soldier, I was denied conscientious objector status. Therefore, I had to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you when they said you had to deploy again? It was recent, wasn’t it?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes. I was — actually, my immediate supervisor told me all along, he — after I was denied, he had a meeting with the chain of command, and he told them, "I recommend that he doesn’t deploy again. We need to find him another job." And they didn’t agree with him. So he kept me informed. He would tell me — he would go to meetings, and he would tell me, "They want you to go. They want you to go. There’s nothing I can do. I’ve tried."

AMY GOODMAN: So what day were you supposed to deploy to Iraq?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: My unit called a formation that I was to report to September 1, and at that point I had already notified my chain of command that I was not deploying. The officer in my platoon came to me a week before, and he said, "I’m worried. I want to know what your plans are." And I said, "Sir, I decided long ago that I was wasn’t going to be a part of war anymore." So he said, "Well, you’re going to have serious consequences if you don’t go. So I want you to take the weekend and think about what you’re going to do." Of course, I had already made my decision on moral grounds.

So he was very concerned, and he informed a group of people, but I think in the end, since I had always followed all the rules, they thought I would eventually just conform. And the day they called the formation, I tried to call my supervisor, right before the formation, to tell him I wasn’t going to be there. So I missed him. He didn’t answer my call, because he was busy. So then, I missed the movement. And the day after, I turned myself in.

AMY GOODMAN: Where?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: In my home base at the MP station.

AMY GOODMAN: In Germany?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened next?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Well, I had already told them I wasn’t going. And I was — and I showed that I wasn’t going, by missing the movement. And they came, my unit came and picked me up from the MP station. And they started making the arrangements for me to be on the next flight out. So at that moment I realized that my actions, my words weren’t enough. It wasn’t enough that I was saying, "I’m against war, I don’t believe in this. I can’t take part. I won’t be a tool of war." That wasn’t enough, I felt at that moment. So then, I had to make myself unavailable for that deployment. So that’s the only reason I left. I’m not — I’m turning myself in. The consequences are more acceptable to me than actual deployment.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us, though, what did you do in Germany? Your unit came to get you? They brought you to your house to get your things?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: They brought me to my house, and I told them — one of the sergeants that came with me, I told him, "I’ve already made my mind. I’m not going." And he said, "Well, that’s not for me to decide." So, he was following orders from the chain of command, which told him, you know, 'Take this guy to his house. He needs to gather his stuff.' So I began to gather my stuff. And then, in a moment and a second, I exited my apartment and left.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you leave? The military, the other soldiers were in your house with you?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So how did you leave?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: They were in my living room. And I left through my bedroom, through one of the bedrooms.

AMY GOODMAN: In the window?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Correct, the window.

AMY GOODMAN: Your family was there at the time?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Helga, your wife, into this conversation. Helga Aguayo, were you home with your daughters?

HELGA AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are your daughters?

HELGA AGUAYO: They’re 11.

AMY GOODMAN: Twins?

HELGA AGUAYO: Twins.

AMY GOODMAN: So what happened when Agustin came home?

HELGA AGUAYO: I was very distraught, so I was crying. I mean, it was my worst nightmare. Most soldiers that refuse to go just get arrested and get court-martialed. And I couldn’t believe that my husband was confronted with being forced to go to Iraq. So he started pulling things out from the back of the apartment. His duffle bags and Kevlar and stuff of that nature. And then I didn’t see him come out any longer. He just didn’t come out anymore. And my heart dropped. And I was very upset. And I eventually went to the back to see what was going on. And one of the bedroom windows was open, and he wasn’t there. So I told the soldiers, the sergeants, "He’s gone. I think he got out the window."

And they got very upset. One of my daughters was playing video games there with us. The other one was skating in front of the apartment building. And they ran out the door, and I ran behind them. They were a few steps ahead of me. And I asked my neighbor, I said, "Have you seen my daughter, my other daughter?" And she said, "The sergeant chased her down the street." So I got very upset, went down the street and started calling for my daughter and couldn’t find her anywhere. And I found her hiding in the bushes, because he had grabbed her, and he asked her, you know, "Where’s your father? Have you seen him? Where’s your father?" And so, she asked me, you know, "Where’s my dad? What’s happening?" And I explained to her the situation, and it was very upsetting for her.

After that, they started coming to our home, banging on the door. They searched the house three times, which I found out later was a violation of my rights as a civilian. They didn’t have a search warrant. So they came into the house, searched the house. They were very harsh with their words. They said that if they found my husband, they would shackle him, they would put handcuffs on him, and they would take him by force. They would put him in a D-Cell until the moment came where the plane would take him to Iraq or Kuwait. And they were just extremely harsh, trying to get me to call him, which I cooperated, but he just wasn’t answering his phone, which I completely understand and support.

I have seen the transformation in my husband. I saw when he enlisted, I supported him. He thought he could do it. But the way I see it, until the moment that he started training to kill, because effectively that’s what they are training to do, kill, he changed. I remember getting letters from him from basic training about how upset he was when he entered the gas chamber. It’s part of the training. They come in with masks, and he wrote a really detailed letter to me saying, "This can’t be right. People were killed like this in World War II. How can I be a part of this?" It was a slow transformation, but I saw it.

I’ve been married to him for 15 years, and I know he’s sincere, and I know that he’s doing the only thing that he possibly could. You have to understand, he’s followed every rule. He’s done everything that he was supposed to do. His rights were violated as a conscientious objector. He didn’t mention that when he was in Iraq, he had C.O. status. And as a C.O., you’re supposed to get duties which less conflict with your conscience. However, he was put on guard duty when he wasn’t supposed to.

AMY GOODMAN: But I thought that they had denied the conscientious objector status.

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: But before that time, they’re supposed to treat you —

HELGA AGUAYO: For the six months that he was there as a conscientious objector, they gave him jobs that he wasn’t supposed to have. So as a true conscientious objector, he never loaded his gun. And he was put in danger without a loaded gun. And then, once he was denied his C.O. status, which interestingly it got denied June 1 and he wasn’t informed until September 1, he was then sent out on patrols immediately. As soon as they found out that he was denied, they started sending him out on patrols. And when he came back, he was determined to continue the process legally. He’s just done everything he possibly could. And if he’s truly a conscientious objector, then he had no choice but to refuse this war, this deployment this time.

AMY GOODMAN: So why are you turning yourself in? We’re doing this interview Monday here in Los Angeles. You’re turning yourself in when we broadcast this interview on Tuesday.

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Because I feel that I want to resolve this issue in my life. I am a member of the Armed Forces. However, I’m against war. Therefore, they need to — they’re going to court-martial me. And I want to start this process. I want to be free from what I’m feeling. I feel that I’m trapped doing something that is wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Being free might mean going to jail.

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about that?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Well, I feel like I’ve always been a great citizen. I’ve never been in any kind of trouble. And it’s sad that that’s going to happen to me, but I feel that in the end I’ll be a better person. And I think things happen for a reason. And because of this experience, I can do positive things for others.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned they could still deploy you to Iraq?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Well, that’s on my mind, as well. However, I feel that, given how the outcome of these last few weeks, they won’t deploy me.

HELGA AGUAYO: We hope.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of support have you gotten along the way? Are you alone in this with your wife Helga? Or have you gotten groups supporting you?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I have found a great number of people that have found out about my situation and are compassionate and understanding. And with words and their presence, they have told me, you know, "We support you. We’re here for you. We believe in you." And that’s more than I could ever ask for, because understanding — I mean, that’s our human need, to be understood, to be accepted. And I found a whole world of people that are against war and that agree with me.

AMY GOODMAN: Helga, your daughters, how are they doing?

HELGA AGUAYO: They’re okay. They understand the consequences of my husband’s decision, which I support. The way that we’ve explained it to them is that this will be the last separation that we’ll have. And they’re happy. They’re actually happy, because they have seen the transformation, too. They’ve seen, you know, my husband enlist and the conscientious objector feelings surface and get crystallized, and just see this person that stands up. The greatest lesson that we can give our daughters is to stand up for what you believe in. And they have certainly learned that lesson through my husband.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Boyce, an Army spokesperson, said in the Los Angeles Times, "I would encourage the individual to get with his chain of command." This is when you were AWOL. "There are many other ways to address these things without going AWOL," he said. Your response, finally, Agustin?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: At the moment I left, I felt I needed to do it. I needed to show that I wouldn’t be available for war. And I want to face the consequences. I want to resolve this issue. So to him I say, well, I tried everything, and now I’m turning myself in. I’m a good person. I’m just an objector to war.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for joining us, Agustin and Helga.

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Thank you.

HELGA AGUAYO: I’d like to add something, if possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Helga.

HELGA AGUAYO: If anyone wants to support us, my husband has a website, which is aguayodefense.org. And on there, they can see the background, all the legal documents. And if anyone wants to donate to our cause, we have incurred a lot of legal expenses. There’s a donate tab on there that they can click on and help us.

AMY GOODMAN: And if Agustin is imprisoned, what will you do, Helga?

HELGA AGUAYO: I will try to start our lives. I will get a job, take care of my girls, and be independent, try to. Right now I’m living with my parents. So I intend to start building our new life and just wait for my husband with open arms.

AMY GOODMAN: Your last thoughts, Agustin, before you make your way to the base, where you will turn yourself in?

AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I want to thank all the people that have helped me and supported me. It’s been a big — it’s been a wonderful feeling to know that I’m not alone, that many soldiers feel the way I do, that many soldiers want to better the situation, but this way is not the way.

AMY GOODMAN: Agustin and Helga Aguayo, speaking to us in Los Angeles yesterday morning. Today, they’ll hold a news conference, and then Agustin will turn himself in to the military.

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