US Army struggles with soldier who won't pull the trigger
Is the decision not to fight conscience or cowardice?
(Page 2 of 2)
While in prison, his conscientious objection suit was rejected. An applicant must demonstrate profound and irreversible moral transformation, but Aguayo chose not to discuss the upheaval in his religious beliefs. Instead, he wrote of his "deep admiration" for Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., and his desire to "follow their lead."Skip to next paragraph
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Reviewing judges found this vague. "Clearly this was not an open-and-shut case," they wrote, but the supportive testimony of Aguayo's immediate higher-ups didn't persuade them he'd changed.
On March 6, with family and supporters behind him, Aguayo stood before a US court martial in Würzburg, Germany, charged with missing movement and desertion. He pled guilty to the former; the prosecution set out to prove the latter. At issue was whether Aguayo had shirked "hazardous duty and important service" by not going to Iraq a second time, and how much his presence might have mattered there.
For six hours, Aguayo and superiors relived his year in Tikrit. Under squad leader Sgt. David Garcia, Aguayo had dressed wounds, cleaned Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and patrolled the streets of the former Iraqi dictator's hometown. Sergeant Garcia testified respectfully of Aguayo as a soldier, saying he'd been working on getting him legally discharged. "I told him what he needed to do was stick by his guns, if that was how he felt."
Lt. Aaron Roberts considered Aguayo "fully capable" in his medical duties, but found his refusal to carry a weapon "a major concern.... We would have exhausted all other resources ... before sending Aguayo out on patrol" again, he said. Still, as Lieutenant Roberts headed to Iraq with 800 men, only a third of whom had combat experience, a levelheaded, experienced soldier like Aguayo could have been "an invaluable asset to me," he added.
The twins leaned into Helga as Judge R. Peter Masterton read his verdict: "Of all charges and specifications, guilty."
Sentencing followed, and Aguayo's superiors described the effect of his flight on fellow soldiers. "There's a lot of talk, a bit of embarrassment to the unit, to the regiment," Garcia said. Though sympathetic to Aguayo's beliefs, the sergeant said, "If I've got 20 other guys who do the same thing Pfc. Aguayo did, I've got a problem."
Aguayo apologized for the trouble he'd caused: "But in the end, I had to obey a higher calling."
Prosecutors wanted him locked up for two years. "When soldiers are severely wounded, combat medics are the ones who hold their hands and tell them it's going to be OK," argued assistant prosecutor Capt. Jennifer Neuhauser. "This is a sacred trust." In wartime, she said, the military can't afford to send its service members the message: "You're a chump. You should have just taken your benefits and run."
Aguayo's civilian attorney countered that punishment wouldn't change the mind of such a soldier – and indeed, that the Army shouldn't try. A military is strongest, David Court argued, "if soldiers are told, 'You do have a conscience.' Otherwise we have automatons."
Judge Masterton gave Aguayo an eight-month sentence (with six already served, he had only a few weeks of confinement); awarded him a bad conduct discharge; and ordered that he forfeit all his rank, pay, and benefits. By April, Aguayo was released and sent to his old base here in Schweinfurt. The sergeants from whom he'd escaped avoided him. Other soldiers sought him out to offer sympathy and solidarity.
In May, Aguayo returned to Palmdale, Calif., to his wife and girls and an uncertain future. Antiwar groups and Helga are encouraging him to travel the country discussing his experience. But he remains uncertain about how the military should handle soldiers like him – men and women who volunteer for duty looking to put their lives on track, only to realize that they can't live with that choice.
In basic training, Aguayo explains, when soldiers jog in formation, "if there's a guy that is running and can't keep up ... somebody falls out and helps him – or somebody screams at him ... to encourage him, to push him." But when a soldier falls out of moral step with the military's mission and can't be threatened or cajoled back into line, Aguayo muses, what should an institution built on unity and common purpose do with him?
"How," he asks, "do you correct a person's mind?"
•Part 1 ran Monday.