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When a US soldier in Iraq won't soldier

What does the Army do with a private who can't be persuaded to load his gun?

By Mary WiltenburgCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2007


No one looked comfortable at the sentencing hearing. Not family and friends who packed the US military courtroom's straight-backed benches. Not the rookie Army prosecutor in stiff dress greens who flushed with every "Your Honor." Not Judge R. Peter Masterton, whose usually animated face was now grave.

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And not the convicted deserter – Army medic Agustín Aguayo – on the stand in a US military court in central Germany last March, pleading for understanding.

"I'm sorry for the trouble my conscience has caused my unit," Private 1st Class Aguayo said, his voice thick with emotion. "I tried to obey the rules, but in the end [the problem] was at the very core of my being."

Colonel Masterton, a veteran military judge, stared down at his bench. The defense wanted him to free this man of conscience. The prosecution asked that he put the coward away for two years to show other soldiers that "they are not fools for fulfilling their obligation."

Aguayo craned to face the judge. "When I hear my sergeants talking about slashing people's throats," he said, crying openly, "if I'm not a conscientious objector, what am I when I'm feeling all this pain when people talk about violence?"

Next door in the press room, where reporters crowded to watch the proceedings on bleached, closed-circuit TVs, a soldier guarding the door wiped tears from his face.

• • •

Every war has its deserters, troops who abandon their posts. And every war has its converts to pacifism. The Defense Department reports that 5,361 active-duty service members deserted the US Armed Forces last year; nearly 37,000 since October 2001. In today's all-volunteer force, that means a desertion rate of less than half a percent – much lower than the Vietnam War draft era, when it reached a 1971 high of 7.4 percent. In the past six years, 325 Army soldiers have applied to be recognized as conscientious objectors (COs), soldiers who no longer believe in war; 58 percent were accepted.

Still, Aguayo's story is revealing of the mental battles of these thousands who change their minds during a bloody war – and, arguably, of many who don't.

Struggling to support a young family in the patriotic months after 9/11, Aguayo chose to serve a nation heading into a long fight. War made a man of the naive private – but not in the way his officers intended.

While his struggle to believe in his mission probably resembled that of many young recruits, no one imagined how it would end.

• • •

Aguayo is a small, soft-spoken man, tentative but quick to smile. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, he immigrated legally to Los Angeles with his parents when he was 4. At 19, he became a citizen and married a girl he'd met at church, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants. He worked a dead-end bank job; for his twin daughters' sake, he wanted more. So he got second and third jobs and enrolled in community college. At Home Depot, where he worked in the fall of 2002, the radio blared through his shift with Army Reserve ads promising he could stay with his family and get a four-year degree.

On the way to renew his driver's license, Aguayo saw a recruiting station and stopped in. "No, you don't want the Army Reserve," he recalls the recruiter saying, "have a seat." Two weeks later, Aguayo joined the active-duty Army. His wife didn't want him to – the Afghan war had subsided and the Iraq invasion was imminent. "But he was so excited and so sure that the future would hold great things," Helga Aguayo says, that she supported his decision. She recalls asking him what he'd do if he had to go to war. "He kind of laughed and said, 'They train you for that. I'll be a different person.' "

But in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., Aguayo couldn't adjust like other recruits did. It pained him to march to "Left, right, kill!" and to chant "We are not men. We are beasts." He stumbled out of gas-mask training crying, and wrote to Helga that the sting of the gas made him think of Nazi gas chambers. "The point is for you to learn how to use the mask," he says, "but [the gas] hurts, and I'd never want to hurt anyone like that." He hoped his qualms were normal, that he'd master them.