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US Army struggles with soldier who won't pull the trigger

Is the decision not to fight conscience or cowardice?

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The US Army sergeants waited on the couch, studying the floor. Family dogs skirted the sofa, growling. From time to time, one of the soldiers extended a conciliatory hand to them.

On the floor, sixth-grader Rebecca Aguayo played a video game; her twin rollerbladed outside. Just one voice fed the tension in the living room: Their mother, Helga, sat in an armchair, bawling. "It was the ugly crying, with the snot and everything," Mrs. Aguayo recalls, "I wanted them to see how much they were hurting us."

Her husband, Army Spc. Agustín Aguayo, hurried around their military base apartment in central Germany that afternoon, under orders to assemble his battle gear. Two-and-a-half years earlier, in February 2004, the medic had applied to leave the Army as a conscientious objector (CO), someone whose beliefs forbid him to participate in war. While his claim was being evaluated, Aguayo served a year in Iraq with an unloaded weapon; when the claim was rejected, he sued for another review.

That legal process was under way on Sept. 1, 2006, the afternoon Aguayo's unit assembled to begin its second Iraq tour. Unwilling to deploy, Aguayo took an officer's advice and stayed home so as not to "make people very upset on a very stressful day." That evening, his commander, Capt. R.J. Torres, called Helga, saying Aguayo would be punished unless he appeared.

Aguayo did not show up before his comrades left that night. The next morning he turned himself in to the military police, prepared to serve prison time for "missing movement." Instead, Captain Torres ordered him taken to Iraq by force. The two sergeants drove him home to get his gear.

"I needed to show that I was ready to do anything except hurt people" rather than return to war, Aguayo says. So, as the men sat in his living room, he stuffed jeans and a T-shirt into a plastic shopping bag, opened a first-floor bedroom window, took out the screen, and jumped.

Aguayo, a military court would later decide, deserted. It's something nearly 37,000 active duty US troops did between October 2001 and October 2006. But the medic's situation was more complex than that. In his mind – and in the minds of superiors who attested that he was "absolutely sincere" – he was a conscientious objector, a hardworking soldier who'd grown opposed to all wars and should have been honorably discharged.

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