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Former Soldier Takes On A New Mission

The conscientious objector is traveling the U.S., talking to audiences and displaying photographs taken in Iraq.

June 12, 2005|Seth Hettena | Associated Press Writer

SAN DIEGO — Since he left the Army in January as a conscientious objector, Aidan Delgado has traveled the country giving audiences a disturbing account of routine brutality that he claims he saw during his year in Iraq.

His grisly roadshow has triggered two military investigations.

Delgado said he saw an Army master sergeant lash Iraqi children with a Humvee antenna. He recalled seeing a Marine send another child flying with a boot to the chest, and men in his unit pelt Iraqi civilians in Nasiriyah with glass soda bottles thrown from a military vehicle.

Wearing a black T-shirt with the word "Peace" in English, Hebrew and Arabic, the former Army specialist punctuated a recent talk to about 50 people with slides of gruesome war images that few civilians see.

One picture showed a bullet-shattered corpse in a partially open body bag. It was followed by an image of a soldier bending over what Delgado said was the same body bag, holding a spoon.

"The point of showing this is not to shock you," Delgado, 23, told his audience at the University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, one of dozens of stops on his intermittent national tour.

"We don't have a really good sense of Iraqi civilians as human beings. It's not part of the news coverage," he said.

Some pictures were taken by Delgado, whose tour of duty included six months at Abu Ghraib prison, where abuse of prisoners had already led to courts martial and international outrage. Other shots were provided by fellow soldiers.

The 81st Regional Readiness Command, which oversees Delgado's former unit in Florida, has launched an investigation into Delgado's claims, said Maj. William D. Ritter, a spokesman. A colonel visited Delgado a week ago to take a sworn statement.

The Army Criminal Investigation Command in Fort Belvoir, Va., also has opened an investigation, spokesman Chris Grey said.

Delgado said he made a statement to an Army criminal investigator, who took copies of the body bag photos and other images from his slideshow.

Emiliano Toro, a former sergeant who served as Delgado's supervisor in Iraq, said he was aware of the alleged incidents involving the children struck with the antenna and civilians hit with soda bottles.

"I did see these things or I did hear about them," he said.

Delgado has attracted a constellation of critics who scrutinize his accounts for inconsistencies, suggest that he's a fake and dismiss him as a darling of the far left. He said he's been heckled during his talks, most recently at UCLA. He got flooded with so many angry e-mails that he had to change his address.

Some criticize him for waiting until he came home to report incidents.

"The time and place to have made these claims was while he was a soldier wearing a uniform over there," said Steve Stromvall, spokesman for the U.S. Army Reserves.

Delgado said he didn't file an official complaint to his commanders because he believed that they were part of the problem. At Abu Ghraib, he said, some of the photos of dead detainees included in his slideshow were displayed on a desk at company headquarters.

Delgado said he saw the actions of fellow soldiers as immoral, not criminal, and he feared retribution if he reported the incidents.

"I don't want to ruin people's lives over something they did in a horrible, stressful situation," he said. "I do want people to know this is a part of war."

The son of a U.S. diplomat, Delgado grew up in Thailand, Senegal and Egypt, where he learned to speak Arabic. He was a bored 19-year-old college student in Florida when he enlisted in the Army Reserves looking for adventure. He signed his service contract the morning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He became a Buddhist and adopted the religion's philosophy of compassion before the Army eventually activated his unit and sent him and 140 others in the 320th Military Police Company to Iraq in March 2003. Three months after arriving, he came face-to-face with the conscripts he was supposed to fight and decided to turn in his weapon.

Back home in Sarasota, Fla., he wanted to put the war behind him as he resumed religious studies at New College of Florida. But people kept wanting to hear about his time in Iraq.

In December, he booked an auditorium at his college and told 400 people about his experiences. Since then, he has given free talks to audiences at high schools, college campuses and churches from Florida to California.

Delgado has aligned himself with the peace movement and other Iraq veterans opposing the war, but hasn't joined the call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Occupation is a better alternative than allowing Iraq to slip into anarchy and even more bloodshed, he said.

"If democracy comes out of this invasion, then there will be some good to it," Delgado said. "But I just want people to know: Along that road, there is going to be an enormous amount of brutality and bloodshed."

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