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Shining a spotlight on the resisters' struggle

May 18, 2007 | Page 7

MILITARY RESISTER Agustín Aguayo returned to his home in California this week after eight months of confinement for refusing to deploy to Iraq for a second time. But the Army has refused to grant Agustín a discharge--so he remains under its authority.

After trying to get conscientious-objector status for nearly three years and facing his second deployment to Iraq, Agustín went absent without leave in late 2006. After turning himself in, he was found guilty at a court-martial of desertion and missing movement.

HELGA AGUAYO has led the struggle to shine a spotlight on her husband's case and to win support for military resisters. Shortly before Agustín's return from his base in Germany, Helga talked to KATIE MILLER about the struggle still ahead of them.

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WHERE DO things stand for Agustín following his court-martial?

AUGIE WAS convicted of desertion and missing movement. Though he could have been sentenced to a total of seven years in prison, the judge only sentenced him to eight months, and with good conduct, he was released April 18. He was also reduced to an E-1 (the lowest rank possible), and forced to forfeit of all pay and allowances.

The convictions in a general court-martial are so serious that he now has two federal convictions on his record--in other words, two felonies. In some states, he doesn't even have the right to vote. He can no longer apply for FAFSA student loans.

What you can do

Agustín will be speaking at a series of events in California in May, alongside fellow resisters Camilo Mejía, Pablo Parades and Robert Zabala. See the Courage to Resist Web site for information on these meetings.

To learn more about Agustín's case and to donate to his defense fund, go to AguayoDefense.org.

Go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site for news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives. Troops who need advice about their rights should go to the GI Rights Hotline Web site, or call 800-394-9544 from the U.S. or 510-465-1472 from outside the U.S.

 

He can't get veteran benefits. So if, for example, he gets diagnosed with some illness due to deployment in Iraq, he's on his own to get medical attention. In fact, he broke his hand in prison and never received adequate treatment due to a "lack of resources" in prison. So he still hasn't been given an answer if they will help him somehow.

The worst part about these convictions is that they're so serious, they won't discharge him until his appeals are processed. These appeals are automatic. We have a military JAG-appointed attorney working on Augie's appeal as we speak.

Until that's final--anywhere from 12 to 24 months from now, maybe more--Augie remains active duty on leave. He's at their beck and call. Anytime they choose to call him in, he'll have to report.

He was attached to a unit at Fort Irwin, California. During that time, he's still their property and can be charged with anything else. He has to abide by the "rules of conduct."

As his wife, until he has a discharge in hand, I will always fear they will try to force him to go to Iraq. I was there when they tried to do it more than six months ago. Who's to say they won't try again?

COULD AGUSTÍN be punished under California's "three strikes" law?

THAT'S SUCH a good question, and I wish I could answer it. Trust me, I've tried to get straight answers. Augie's JAG attorney, who can practice in California, said, "I'm not for sure, but I think it may be possible."

This is one of the reasons I would like to continue our fight in court. If the potential exists that Augie could be convicted under this law, there's something very wrong with our judicial system. For God's sake, the man was convicted of two felonies because he didn't want to kill! How wrong is that?

Anyone who takes the time to speak to Augie can see he's a good man. He doesn't deserve this. My biggest wish for him and us as a family is vindication. I want the courts to recognize him as a conscientious objector (CO). If that happens, then his felonies go away.

But this whole legal dilemma is bigger than that--it's bigger than him. I have to admit that when we started this, it was just about Augie. When he was put in prison, it was just about saving "my Augie."

But things have changed. His convictions have set a really bad legal precedent. Until Augie came along, no one had been convicted of desertion the way he was. He was convicted of desertion while only being AWOL (absent without leave) for less than 30 days. This was unheard of before Augie.

Now, potentially, any soldier who questions war and decides to go AWOL for less than 30 days can be--and more than likely will be--convicted of desertion. Augie saw people convicted of aggravated assault, murder and rape sentenced to much less time. Desertion is still punishable by death. This precedent needs to be overturned.

WHY DO you think the military has chosen to punish Agustín even after the Army's own investigating officer recommended that Agustín be separated from military service?

IT COULD have been much worse if the judge hadn't believed that Augie was a true CO. Still, I feel that because the judge knew he was a CO, the punishment was too severe. He should have been let go right then and there, and given an honorable discharge.

But what message would that have sent to soldiers? Fear of more actions like Augie's is what caused that severe reaction. If they have too many soldiers opposing this war and any war, then who would fight? Not the president or elected officials, that's for sure! We would have no wars. No more profits for the poor rich men.

At Augie's court-martial, the prosecution closed by saying, "Send a clear message to all those that run away, jump out a window and hold a press conference when they don't agree with their superior officers, that they will be punished severely." Obviously, for Augie, it was more than just not agreeing with his superior officers.

The funny part is that Augie's unit was extended in Iraq for another six months. So instead of coming back in September 2007, they will come back March 2008. While he's on base now in Germany, soldiers tell him all the time that he did the right thing. Of course, they don't completely understand it's not about fear of dying. War is just morally wrong for him.

He has a lot of notoriety now. He thought he'd fall under the radar when he got out of prison. But he's recognized everywhere he goes. Most of his experiences have been positive. He says the young kids who just enlisted call him Doc (because he's a paramedic) Houdini, because he escaped from the sergeants who were supposed to get him on a plane to Iraq.

The young kids who haven't been to Iraq, and some of the ones who have been there once, have deep admiration for him. He's having an impact on them, and that is just amazing to me. I'm so proud of him.

HOW HAS this ordeal affected you and your family?

HOW MANY days do you have? I have never felt such despair in my life. My heart hurt in a way that I didn't know was possible.

Yet I've never felt such love from perfect strangers, just offering nothing but love--in exchange for nothing. I could have never, in my wildest dreams imagined that a whole network of people would stand behind us and lift us, carry us, hold us, cherish us and love us in a moment when we could no longer stand on our own. The peace movement community has given us strength far beyond what I would have imagined possible.

This ordeal has opened our eyes in ways I never knew about, politically and morally. Believe it or not, it has made us smarter. I'm not saying we're Einsteins now, but we know more about history and politics.

As a family it has made us stronger. More determined to succeed--although our idea of success has changed. We want our daughters to be successful financially, but we care more about that kind of people they'll be. We want them to make a difference in the world. And we now know that one person can make a difference.

Financially, this has hit us hard. We have no idea how the two felonies will affect us yet. I have been out of the job market for three years while living in Germany, and have yet to find a job. My health suffered quite a bit. I've been in the hospital a few times since the court-martial, and my condition only gets aggravated by stress.

I will continue to have stress until this ordeal is completely over. And sadly, it won't be anytime soon.

Our daughters have lost confidence--they're quiet and shy. The whole ordeal was extremely traumatic--especially when the Army came to our house and interrogated me and our daughters, and told me in front of our daughters that Augie could be put to death for being a deserter. For a time it seemed, they weren't going to pass the 6th grade, though now, it seems they will.

All this has made me more determined. Determination gets things done. I've learned to speak up--I had to! I also have more faith in human kindness, but the biggest thing that has changed is my perception of myself. I now know I'm stronger than I ever thought possible.

WHAT CAN activists do to help your cause?

Activist can certainly help us! Our legal battles are nowhere near over, and funds are still desperately needed to continue our fight. Our legal battles will help reverse a bad legal precedent, should we win. Please consider donating to the Agustín Aguayo Political and Legal Defense Fund at www.aguayodefense.org, or click on the donate tab at www.couragetoresist.org.

Also, Augie is launching a victory tour to help fundraise. Please consider coordinating a stop or a fundraiser in your city. For more information, call Lori at 510-764-2073 or write [email protected].

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