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War resister gets a hero's welcome

Agustin Aguayo, freed from prison after he refused a second tour in Iraq, appears before an appreciative audience of antiwar activists.

July 23, 2007|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Agustin Aguayo served eight months in a military prison after refusing to serve a second tour in Iraq, but the former U.S. Army medic received a hero's welcome Sunday from antiwar activists in Los Angeles.

Although still somewhat uncomfortable addressing an audience, the soft-spoken, bespectacled Aguayo appeared at a reception in his honor at an art gallery in Highland Park.

The Palmdale resident, 35, has begun touring the country, telling the story of how he went AWOL for 24 days and came to oppose all military service.

At the Highland Park gathering, Aguayo described himself as having "mixed emotions inside," happy to be home but sad that the war in Iraq continues.

"I realized I wasn't just a medic, someone that helps and patches up and heals the wounded. I was much more. I was an enabler of these missions," the Southern California native said.

In an interview after his brief talk, Aguayo described his evolution after he joined the Army in January 2003 to earn money for his education into what he now calls himself on his business card: a "conscientious objector/war resister."

Aguayo, who has dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship, applied for conscientious objector status in February 2004 but was sent to Iraq while his request still was being considered.

He later returned to his base in Germany. But after learning that he was going to be redeployed in Iraq last year, he went AWOL for 24 days. After turning himself in, he was court-martialed and convicted of desertion and other charges and given a bad-conduct discharge, a decision he is appealing. He served his sentence in Germany, and was released in April.

"I never wanted to break any rules," he said, explaining that the Army can discharge soldiers determined to be conscientious objectors.

Even before going to Iraq, Aguayo said, he realized that his beliefs had changed to the point where he could no longer serve in the military.

He said that although he was in Iraq as a medic, he would refuse to load his weapon even on guard duty. What's more, seeing combat close-up in Iraq, Aguayo said, "just led me to understand that even with the best intentions, war is an evil element we need to ... change. We need to abolish it, for the sake of humanity.

"I was fortunate to pause and listen to that voice that's in each and every one of us, our conscience. It just screamed loudly that what I was being a part of was very wrong. I'm referring to our involvement in this conflict that," he said, pausing several moments, "is causing so much devastation."

The hardest part of his experience as a war resister, Aguayo said, was his concern about how he would be received by the American public.

"I always tried to be an honest person and a good person and, in a sense, it could seem to be that I'm this horrible person, who just didn't want to support his army, his government. But that's very far from the truth."

He and others protesting the war, Aguayo said, are not "people who just are trying to protect their skin."

"What moved me," he said, "was purely based on moral convictions."

But the audience of about 75 people who squeezed into a small two-room gallery and braved sweltering heat for the afternoon gathering was anything but hostile, with not a person challenging Aguayo's decision. They gave Aguayo and his wife, Helga P. Aguayo, 34, a warm reception, punctuating their talks with bursts of applause and greeting them with hugs.

Helga Aguayo focused on the emotional toll that multiple tours in Iraq were taking on soldiers as well as spouses and children. She cited cases of soldiers or their family members who have committed suicide. "The government is asking too much of military families," she said.

Army officials could not be reached late Sunday for comment. Last September, while Aguayo was AWOL, one of his commanding officers, Maj. Robert Whittle, told the Stars and Stripes newspaper, "In the global war on terrorism, we need everybody rowing the boat."

The gathering was organized by the Asian American Vietnam Veterans Organizationand Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, a Japanese American group.

Also attending were activists with the group Iraq Veterans Against the War, several of whom, including Aguayo, were wearing black T-shirts with the name of the group emblazoned in white letters.

stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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