By Alice Embree
Three knocks on the door of the small conference room signaled the beginning of Specialist Victor Agosto’s summary court martial. Captain Santos said, “Enter.”
Victor saluted her and said, “Specialist Agosto reporting as ordered.”
A summary court martial is a scripted affair in which the presiding officer serves as judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. At this hearing Victor Agosto’s charge was his refusal to obey orders to deploy to Afghanistan and the tiny room was packed with civilian supporters. An Associated Press reporter would soon give the story a national audience.
Specialist Victor Agosto has been stationed with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 69th Air Defense Artillery, Rear Detachment. He had served a thirteen-month deployment in Iraq. On the day of his court martial he had been in the Army four years and one day. His contract would have been up at the end of June, but the unpopular stop/loss clause was invoked, his termination date revised and he was told he would be deployed to Afghanistan.
Rather than going AWOL or trying to escape punishment, Agosto informed his command in April that he would not be deployed to Afghanistan. He reported for work, but refused all orders that directly supported the war that he found immoral and unjust.
In the court martial hearing on Wednesday, August 5, 2009, Cynthia Thomas testified to Victor Agosto’s character. She told those present that as an Army wife for seventeen years, she had met many soldiers, from privates to officers. “And in all that time I have not met a soldier with more integrity than Spc. Victor Agosto… He’s not impulsive or rash… he carefully considers the consequences of his actions… I have seen him struggle with the question that plagues many of our soldiers and family members. Whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just.”
Cynthia told the court that Victor Agosto “made the very hard decision to follow his conscience knowing that his peers and his command would ostracize him. That he would lose all the benefits he has earned after fulfilling his 4-year contract, and after serving thirteen months in the Iraq war… Victor feels so strongly in following his conscience that he is willing to give up his freedom. The very freedom that our country asks our soldiers to fight for…"
After Cynthia’s testimony, the hearing was moved to a larger hearing room in order to accommodate more supporters who had not been able to get in. Victor Agosto was allowed to present testimony at that time. He spoke of his good conduct medal, of the fact that he didn’t break rules other than those he could not follow in good conscience. He testified that he did not pursue a Conscientious Objector discharge because he believed that some wars were necessary. Agosto said that he believed that the war in Afghanistan was illegal under international law — that the United Nations Charter prevents countries from engaging in wars unless they are in self-defense or authorized by a United Nations Security Council resolution.
Agosto went on to cite the letters of support he has received, including one from Noam Chomsky. He said that he has received over 2,000 online signatures on petitions of support and several hundred more petition signatures on paper.
After a short adjournment, Captain Santos read Agosto’s sentence — loss of rank, loss of half a month’s pay, and thirty days confinement. He is then likely to receive an Other Than Honorable discharge that will cost him additional GI benefits.
In an unscripted emotional moment after the sentence was read, Victor Agosto ripped his rank off his uniform and put it in front of the Captain. Later, his attorney said, he received a guard’s help in removing the rank sewn on to his hat.
Supporters waited for about forty minutes for Victor Agosto to be brought downstairs. Guards escorted him to a white van. He was undaunted, unshackled and without handcuffs, flashing a peace sign as supporters did the same and raised fists. Despite a guard’s repeated warnings of “no pictures,” cameras clicked and film rolled.
Victor Agosto’s civilian attorney, James Branum, returned reporters’ phone calls all afternoon. He had acted as an occasional advisor, but did not represent his client. Under the strange rules of military
code, if Branum had represented Agosto, a guilty verdict would remain permanently on Agosto’s criminal record.
At 7:00, under a still unforgiving Texas sun, about sixty supporters gathered at the East Gate of Fort Hood. Active duty soldiers in Iraq Veterans Against the War were joined by people from Killeen, Belton, Austin, and as far away as Fort Worth. Protestors stood across from the sprawling military base — the country’s largest base — holding signs of support for Victor and chanting. Drivers passing by flashed peace signs, held thumbs up and honked, proving that there is more of a bond than most would suspect between the peace movement and the soldiers and military families ground down by multiple deployments in seemingly unending wars.
James Branum read a statement from Victor Agosto. “I have learned that nothing is more frightening to power than a direct and principled challenge to its authority. The truth is on our side and those who have incarcerated me know it.”
Victor Agosto will serve thirty days in a Bell County Correctional Facility. (His official inmate listing says "offense unknown.") Supporters have scheduled weekly protests 1-2:00 p.m. each Saturday while Agosto is incarcerated. Belton’s New Jail Facility, also known as Loop 121, is located at Loop 121 and Huey Drive.
This article originally appeared on the site RagBlog.
Photo by Michael Kern / The Rag Blog.