US medic in Germany guilty of desertion
By Tony Paterson, The Independent, 07 March 2007

A US Army medic who refused to return to Iraq because of his opposition to the war has been found guilty of desertion by a court martial in Germany. The verdict follows reports from soldiers' counselling groups of a more than threefold rise in American military personnel wanting to leave the armed forces.

Agustin Aguayo, 35, who was born in Mexico, climbed out of a bathroom window at a US base at Schweinfurt, Germany, in September last year and went absent without leave for 24 days to avoid being sent on a second tour of duty in Iraq. Yesterday, in a case closely watched by American anti-war groups, a court martial in Würzburg convicted Aguayo of desertion. He faces up to seven years in prison, a dishonourable discharge and loss of pay.

The presiding judge, Colonel Peter Masterton, did not pass sentence immediately after ruling that Aguayo was guilty of desertion rather than the lesser charge of going absent without leave.

"The accused was supposed to deploy with his unit to face hazardous duty in Iraq. Instead he decided to jump out of his window and run away," Captain Derrick Grace, for the prosecution, told the court martial.

The case came less than a month after the court martial of First Lieutenant Ehren Watada - the first known trial of a US Army officer for refusing to serve in Iraq - and at a time of rapidly waning support for the war in the US. The case ended in a mistrial.

Aguayo denied desertion but admitted going absent without leave. "Yes I deliberately stayed away from the battalion area," he told a panel of senior officers. "I missed the troop movement."

Aguayo served one tour of duty as a combat medic in Iraq in 2004 and claimed he refused to load his weapon while on duty. He subsequently lost an appeal for a military discharge as a conscientious objector.

David Court, his lawyer, said his client did not merely oppose the Iraq war: "We are dealing with somebody who is saying, I don't believe in war at all."

An increasing number of the US Army's 65,000 soldiers based in Germany are seeking to leave. Michael Sharp, the director of the Military Counselling Network (MCN), a non-governmental body based in Heidelberg, said there had been a surge in calls in January after President Bush announced plans to deploy a further 20,000 troops in Iraq. "We normally get about eight new calls a month, but in January alone we got 30," he said.

The Centre on Conscience and War, based in Washington, said last week that it was receiving an average of two calls a day inquiring about conscientious objection as opposed to two a week after the Iraq war started.

Tim Huber, who also works for the MCN, said higher ranks had begun to join ordinary soldiers in seeking information about how to gain recognition as conscientious objectors.

He said he had received several calls from sergeants and staff sergeants - men and women who had spent between five and seven years in the Army.

"The displeasure with the war and how that can affect your attitude to all wars is beginning to seep through some higher ranks," he added.

Mr Huber said that more than half of all applications for conscientious objector status failed because candidates had to prove their moral opposition to all wars. He said many recruits went absent without leave (Awol), took drugs or committed other offences in order to be discharged from the armed forces.

The US Defence Department has admitted that some 8,000 soldiers have gone Awol since the Iraq war began in March 2003.

Aguayo applied for conscientious objector status in 2004, having enlisted in 2002 to earn money for his education.

Mr Huber said Aguayo decided to go Awol after his appeal was turned down and he was threatened with being forcibly sent back to Iraq. "He had been trying so hard to follow the system by filing for conscientious objection discharge - but he was just ignored," he said