Aguayo went AWOL last summer after being ordered to return to Iraq for a second deployment. He had previously spent a year there, where he refused to load his gun no matter how dangerous the situation. He had applied for conscientious objector status but was denied. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Over the last several months, we’ve closely followed the case of Army medic Agustin Aguayo. Aguayo went AWOL last summer after being ordered to return to Iraq for a second deployment. He previously spent a year there, where he refused to load his gun no matter how dangerous the situation. He had applied for conscientious objector status but was denied.
We first spoke to Aguayo the day before he turned himself in. He was later convicted of desertion and missing movement, demoted to the lowest rank possible and stripped of pay and military benefits. He spent more than six months at his base in Germany.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Agustin Aguayo is now a free man. He returned to the United States last Friday, just weeks after he was released from confinement. Today, Agustin Aguayo joins us from Los Angeles, where he has been reunited with his wife Helga and his twin daughters.
Welcome to Democracy Now! and welcome back to the United States.
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your time in jail, but begin with your explanation of why, though you joined the military, you applied for conscientious objector status?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes, Amy, I came in the military, 2003, wanted to do wonderful things for myself and my country, and I soon realized that morally I couldn’t participate in this armed conflict. I was there. I did the best I could.
I decided before I left I wouldn’t take anyone’s life. While I was there, it was overwhelmingly clear to me that war is definitely something I couldn’t take part of anymore, based on moral principles, life experiences, so I decided not to return.
I [sought] all the legal channels to be recognized as a CO, and I was unsuccessful. There was a constant struggle, and at the Pentagon, the panel of three people that decided on my case, they were divided two to one. So conscientious objection is something that they struggle with — I mean, who is one and who is not.
When you show that you make the ultimate experience of your sincerity by not going back, then you are punished the most harsh, in the most harsh way. My time in prison was a time of deep reflection. I felt completely free there, as free as I had not been in so long. I was able to share my experience with others, and that brought me a sense of joy. It was also painful, since I was separated from my wife, but this was something I was willing to pay or something I was willing to do in order for me to save my sanity and not go against my conscience.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And how did your fellow soldiers react to your stance, both while you were serving in the Army and then while you were in the brig?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Well, while I was serving in the Army, those who knew me well supported me, especially when they got to know me. Initially, when people heard about me, you know, there was some resentment, because we all are volunteers, and they figured, you know, people just want to get out of dangerous situations. But after meeting me and living with me and spending time and speaking, they could understand that that fear had nothing to do with it. And the ones that got to know me well truly respected me, I feel.
AMY GOODMAN: Agustin Aguayo, it’s interesting that your IO, your investigating officer who investigated your desire to be considered a conscientious objector, recommended it, said that — and I looked at the documents. He said, you know, this is the real thing, you’re the real deal here.
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes, Amy. And the interesting thing you point out about that is that in my court-martial, all these facts came out, and when he was called, he responded and said to the attorneys, you know, no one could ever explain to me why he wasn’t a conscientious objector, which is very interesting to me. I mean, there was a constant debate between them — should we, or should we not? Should we keep him, or should we not?
And I think, in the end, it really has to do with the numbers. Retention is hard, and, you know, they don’t really want to see people go, people that they’ve trained, people that they know they can count on. And it’s sad, because our country has a history of conscientious objectors and the government recognizing them, and I think it’s important that we focus on this issue and, you know, consider that the Army prepares us for many things — for war, for danger — and I was there — and we can function in this environment, but it doesn’t teach us to deal with our moral conflict, because it’s not in the best interest, of course.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what were you able to tell in the time that you were there about the way that some of your fellow soldiers were dealing with their own moral issues and the situation with the war? I mean, clearly, there’s not a whole lot of folks that are applying for conscientious objector status, but there is an increasing number of soldiers who are going AWOL or seeking to not be redeployed to Iraq. Could you talk about what you saw among your fellow soldiers?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes, I could say that, unfortunately, the environment there creates a situation where conscience, your sense of right and wrong, gets clouded by what’s going on around you. You’re in survival mode. And this results in people acting in all sorts of unethical ways. I spoke to a master sergeant while I was in prison, and I shared with him my feelings. And he said, "I can understand you. I mean, the Army could potentially ask you to do some unethical things at this time, and, unfortunately, many of our young people are in this situation. They just want to survive." And like I said, that sense of right and wrong gets clouded in that environment.
AMY GOODMAN: Agustin Aguayo, can you describe your imprisonment in Germany? Can you explain what you were convicted of, your sentence, and what has happened to you as an Army medic? First, where were you held?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I was held in Mannheim, Germany, at the confinement facility in Europe. And my time there was difficult at times. You know, I was treated like I had — like one of the other prisoners, humiliating at times. It’s just part of being there.
AMY GOODMAN: Who was imprisoned there with you?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: About 40 other Army — they were all servicemembers.
AMY GOODMAN: And what were they imprisoned for?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: A number of things, from adultery to drug use, to assault, to larceny, and a few for AWOL.
AMY GOODMAN: You had jumped out of your bathroom window when the soldiers brought you to your home in Germany to pack up to return to Iraq. When your wife and daughters were in their living room, you went in the back, then went AWOL. We saw you in Los Angeles the day that you were turning yourself in to Fort Irwin. So, after the court-martial, what are the implications of what the ruling was for you, for your life, for your family?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Yes, Amy, I now have a — I was found guilty of two charges, which is desertion and missing movement. And I have to carry that with me from now on. And I’m willing to do that, because I stood up for what I believed. But at the same time, I feel that since the military does recognize conscientious objectors, then I shouldn’t have those charges, because I just acted on my convictions. However, I have to live with that. And I won’t get benefits, of course, military benefits, and applying for certain jobs is completely out of the question now — anything that has to do with working for the government. So the implications are rather great, but it’s something I’m willing to live with, because I saved my integrity, and I was truly free when I stood up and I finally said, "I cannot participate anymore, and I’m willing to accept any consequences."
JUAN GONZALEZ: Where do you go from here now? Are you still in the military, technically? And are you going to continue to speak out against the war?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: Technically, I’m still in the military, because I have the right to an automatic appeal to the court-martial. And that is a long process. It could be up to two years. I have a rehearing in the courts in my civil suit against the Army in D.C., and I would like to be redeemed, and I would like to be recognized —
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what is your civil suit against the Army?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I’m challenging that I was wrongfully denied conscientious objector status. And so, I’m still essentially in the military. However, I don’t have to report to any duty station. So I’m essentially free to live my life. And from here, I would like to share with others my experience. I think it’s vital, it’s crucial that people understand from a different perspective what is actually taking place, what I saw, what my conclusions were and why I couldn’t return.
AMY GOODMAN: Agustin Aguayo, when you landed in San Francisco, first laying foot on U.S. soil again, you began immediately your speaking tour with Camilo Mejia, Florida Army National Guardsman, also court-martialed and imprisoned, and Pablo Paredes, the Navy seaman who refused to deploy, to get on the ship. Are you continuing to travel with them around the country?
AGUSTIN AGUAYO: I have returned to Los Angeles to be with my family, and maybe in the near future I will join them, and I would also, of course, go to any community and sit with any group that would like to hear my story.
AMY GOODMAN: Agustin Aguayo, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much for being with us, and welcome home, Army medic just released from military prison in Mannheim, Germany.