US Army struggles with soldier who won't pull the trigger

Is the decision not to fight conscience or cowardice?

The US Army sergeants waited on the couch, studying the floor. Family dogs skirted the sofa, growling. From time to time, one of the soldiers extended a conciliatory hand to them.

On the floor, sixth-grader Rebecca Aguayo played a video game; her twin rollerbladed outside. Just one voice fed the tension in the living room: Their mother, Helga, sat in an armchair, bawling. "It was the ugly crying, with the snot and everything," Mrs. Aguayo recalls, "I wanted them to see how much they were hurting us."

Her husband, Army Spc. Agustín Aguayo, hurried around their military base apartment in central Germany that afternoon, under orders to assemble his battle gear. Two-and-a-half years earlier, in February 2004, the medic had applied to leave the Army as a conscientious objector (CO), someone whose beliefs forbid him to participate in war. While his claim was being evaluated, Aguayo served a year in Iraq with an unloaded weapon; when the claim was rejected, he sued for another review.

That legal process was under way on Sept. 1, 2006, the afternoon Aguayo's unit assembled to begin its second Iraq tour. Unwilling to deploy, Aguayo took an officer's advice and stayed home so as not to "make people very upset on a very stressful day." That evening, his commander, Capt. R.J. Torres, called Helga, saying Aguayo would be punished unless he appeared.

Aguayo did not show up before his comrades left that night. The next morning he turned himself in to the military police, prepared to serve prison time for "missing movement." Instead, Captain Torres ordered him taken to Iraq by force. The two sergeants drove him home to get his gear.

"I needed to show that I was ready to do anything except hurt people" rather than return to war, Aguayo says. So, as the men sat in his living room, he stuffed jeans and a T-shirt into a plastic shopping bag, opened a first-floor bedroom window, took out the screen, and jumped.

Aguayo, a military court would later decide, deserted. It's something nearly 37,000 active duty US troops did between October 2001 and October 2006. But the medic's situation was more complex than that. In his mind – and in the minds of superiors who attested that he was "absolutely sincere" – he was a conscientious objector, a hardworking soldier who'd grown opposed to all wars and should have been honorably discharged.

Since boot camp in 2003, Aguayo had felt at odds with his military mission. Now his mission was just to keep moving. A civilian friend gave him a ride to the train station. Aguayo traveled to Munich, where he stayed with an antiwar activist. German and American peace activists passed the hat and bought plane tickets. The Mexican Consulate issued the naturalized US citizen a passport in less than an hour. Aguayo flew to Mexico, met his father-in-law at the US border, and rode home with him to Palmdale, Calif. On Sept. 26, 2006, he turned himself in at Fort Irwin, Calif.

That night, sitting in a cell, he wondered if this was how God punished the faithless. Raised as Jehovah's Witnesses, he and Helga had met as children, married as teens, and baptized their daughters in Kingdom Hall. When they started community college, though, Aguayo had a philosophy professor whose "way of questioning was so intriguing," he says, that it "would get you doing it even after class."

With time, the Aguayos made a painful break from their church. One of its central tenets is political neutrality: Members don't usually salute flags or perform military service. At first, Aguayo saw his religious estrangement as spiritual license to serve his country. By the time he realized that, church or no church, he couldn't take a human life, he was already a US infantryman.

Last October, Aguayo was returned in handcuffs to the US Army stockade at Coleman Barracks in Mannheim, Germany. The prison had a library, and, for half a year, Aguayo read everything from "The World is Flat" to "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families." He studied Genesis and Exodus, Deepak Chopra, and financial planning. Buddhist philosophy intrigued him. Reading fed Aguayo's growing political awareness. He now viewed Operation Iraqi Freedom as a betrayal of the founding principles of his adopted nation.

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."

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.

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