Family Backs Army Medic Facing Desertion Charges This Week
March 5, 2007Update: Augustine Aguayo was convicted of missing movement and of desertion and sentenced to eight months in prison. Because he has already served nearly six, he is likely to be released in less than two months. March 3 Helga Aguayo knew she needed to do something when Army officers came to her home to force her husband, a conscientious objector and Army medic posted in Germany, to deploy for a second tour of duty in Iraq. “Helga,” said Augustine Aguayo, “I’m going to get my bag.” She understood the meaning implicit in his words. Helga Aguayo smiled, and then offered water to the men who could send her husband to Iraq in shackles. Once she had them settled on the sofa, she began to explain how the Iraq War had destroyed Augustine Aguayo and ripped her family apart. By the time she stopped 40 minutes later, Augustine had climbed out his bedroom window and fled into Germany. After evading his commanding officers in September 2006, Augustine Aguayo appealed to the Mexican Consulate, which arranged for safe passage into Mexico, the country of his birth. Less than a month later, hoping a federal court would grant him a discharge as a conscientious objector, Augustine turned himself in to Army commanders in southern California. He was shipped back to Germany and charged with desertion and missing movement. Confined to a military brig, his court-martial begins on Tuesday, March 6. If convicted, he faces seven years in prison. The story of how the Aguayos became embroiled in this saga is uncomfortably familiar in their immigrant community. They were young, searching for ways to live the American dream—to create meaningful lives for themselves and their twin daughters. They wanted to give back to the country that had become their home. Working the graveyard shift at Home Depot, Augustine sought to fulfill what he saw as his obligations as the head of household. “We both bought into a glamorized idea about wearing the uniform,” says Helga. Augustine Aguayo joined the Army in 2002, with Helga’s full support. But when she attended his boot camp graduation, she observed stark changes in her husband. His response to questions about training indicated his turmoil. “He gave me a chilling look,” she explains. “He said he had learned to kill a man in less than a minute, in three different ways. Seconds later, he shook his head and said how wrong he thought that was.” Helga understood her husband’s ambivalence. In a military culture not known for encouraging egalitarian relationships between men and women, Helga and Augustine Aguayo together fought for Augustine’s release from military service. Deployed to Iraq in 2004, Augustine began to articulate his belief that war was immoral. Although he was derided as a “faggot,” he refused to load his gun even when he went out on patrols. As a combat medic, he was well positioned to see the horror of war. Two of his friends tried to commit suicide. The battle for conscientious objector status has taken its toll on the Aguayo family. While Augustine remains in prison in Germany, Helga moved in with her mother-in-law in the northeastern corner of Los Angeles County. The couples’ daughters support their dad, but hearing military officials say he could be executed for desertion has been disturbing for the 11-year old twins. They used to do well in school, where they were popular among their classmates. Now, according to their mother, they have grown cynical, losing respect for authority. They don’t seem to care about their grades. After nearly three years of following military procedure and remaining silent, Helga Aguayo has had enough. She has launched a full-scale campaign for her husband’s release. “Today, I want people to see our pain,” she says. “I want people to know who we are, what we have done, and how we have been treated as a result.” In many ways, the Aguayos are lucky. The strength of their marriage, their mutual understanding, maturity, and commitment to each other survived the enormous strain military life puts on families. The Aguayos emerge from their legal struggles with an increased dedication to equity and human rights for each individual that belies the often-gendered ways the military culture values power, order and control. “When you are being abused or taken advantage of, you must speak out against it,” says Helga. “When you don’t stand up for what you believe, you hurt everyone around you.” Helga Aguayo traveled with her two daughters and her mother-in-law to Wurzburg, Germany for Augustine’s court-martial. Three generations of women will be there to support this conscientious objector.