War's horrors turn volunteer into pacifist

Published December 19, 2004

SARASOTA - Two hundred people fill the hall, but it's utterly silent as photos flash on a tall screen: a bearded man with a horrifying head wound, a child whose features and hair are burned so badly the gender is impossible to determine.

"I'm not trying to shock you," says Aidan Delgado. The images of civilian casualties, he says, are a reality of the Iraq war that Americans rarely see.

More photos: prisoners at Abu Ghraib huddled in tents, freezing mud up to their ankles. The mangled face of a prisoner being zipped into a body bag after, Delgado says, he was shot by American soldiers for throwing stones at guards.

The images of dead and injured Iraqis are meant to convey the stark reality of what Delgado considers the United States' immoral occupation.

Most American troops in Iraq serve honorably, he says, but when injustices occur, they shouldn't be ignored or covered up. "I believe supporting the troops means telling the truth about what happened in Iraq. I want you to think about what's going on in your name."

But Delgado doesn't fit neatly into the old peacenik stereotype. He says he does not believe the United States should pull out of Iraq now - a statement that gets an angry response from a few baby boomers in the audience.

"That would be getting rid of one evil and replacing it with another evil," he says. The likely result, a civil war among Iraq's three ethnic groups, "would mean Saddam the Second, or maybe the return of Saddam himself." Delgado, 23, is a religion major at New College and an Army Reserve veteran who served in Iraq for a year, starting in April 2003. While there he applied for conscientious objector status, but it wasn't granted until after his tour of duty was over.

He says he just wanted to forget the war when he first came back to the United States. "But I was getting questions all the time about my experiences in Iraq."

So he put together a slide show of photographs, taken by him and fellow soldiers, that document his experiences at Camp Tallil in southern Iraq and at Abu Ghraib prison. He told his story in a talk at New College on Dec. 6, and later in an interview.

How does a man go from volunteering to serve to stepping up to publicly oppose the war? Delgado says it was going to war that opened his eyes. "Maybe what we were doing wasn't so glorious, and maybe I wasn't the man to do it."

* * *

At New College 31/2 years ago, Delgado had finished his freshman year "not with flying colors" and felt restless and unfocused.

He began thinking about volunteering for the Army Reserve. "It was a personal challenge. Also, I think it was kind of a reaction to New College. You know, that ivory tower thing. It's very liberal, very antimilitary."

Delgado had been brought up with a strong tradition of service. "My father has served his country for almost 40 years," first in the Peace Corps and then in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps.

His father's work took the family all over the globe. Delgado was born in Mali and grew up in Thailand, Senegal and Egypt.

He doesn't want to overstate the seriousness of his reasons for enlisting in the Reserves. The country was not then at war. "I figured it was two days a month."

When Army recruiters visited the New College campus, "I was their dream candidate. I came up and said, "Sign me up.' "

Delgado later went to Tampa to sign the contract obligating him to serve six years in the Army Reserve. After he turned it in, the recruiter said, "Hey, you should go look at what's on TV."

It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The towers were falling.

* * *

The terrorist attacks changed everything, but they didn't change Delgado's mind about volunteering. "At first, I thought it was a really good decision."

In the Reserve, he was trained as a mechanic and earned the rank of specialist. "I can take apart a Humvee and put it back together again."

In January 2003, his unit, the 320th Military Police, got eight days' notice to report to Fort Stewart in Georgia for mobilization. Delgado says he was beginning to think he might be a conscientious objector even then. "Of all the people in my unit, I wanted to go to war probably the least."

In April 2003, they were sent to Camp Tallil. The unit's mechanics repaired battered vehicles by cannibalizing the worst wrecks, he says, because supplies to Reserve units were a constant problem. For a time, with temperatures above 100 degrees, the soldiers were limited to one MRE and 11/2 liters of water a day.

The nearest city was Nasiriyah, where Delgado got "the keenest sense of the human face of the war." He was often sent into the city because he was the only Arabic speaker in the unit.

"At first," Delgado says, "the Iraqis were overwhelmingly friendly. But months later, as the occupation dragged on, it was, "We're glad you're here, but when are you going home?' They began to lose faith in our stated notion of liberation."

He was changing, too. "It was a wearing-down process. I was deeply depressed. The other guys in my unit told me I kept screaming in my sleep."

He had a longtime interest in Buddhism and its pacifist principles. "The chaplain sent me to talk to a Buddhist chaplain from the Korean army. But he didn't speak English and I didn't speak Korean, so that didn't go very far." But he pursued the study of Buddhism on his own.

One of his assignments, he says, was excavating the mass grave of dozens of Kuwaitis executed during the Persian Gulf War. "As we pulled out body after body, it was clear the cost of war was more civilian and human than military."

He was also troubled by what he saw as other soldiers' misconceptions about the reasons for the war. "I used to ask everyone in Iraq, "Why are we here?' Everyone said, "It's because of Sept. 11.'

"It didn't matter that there's no connection; it didn't matter that al-Qaida was the enemy of Saddam Hussein's regime. The soldiers' perception on the ground was that they were there because of Sept. 11."

* * *

Delgado says, and the Army confirms, that he filed for conscientious objector status while at Camp Tallil. His sergeants were supportive, he says, but reaction higher up the chain of command was negative. "It makes them look bad to have an objector in their unit."

During the Vietnam War, many people who filed for objector status did so before they were drafted. But soldiers can file for objector status if their beliefs are changed by war. The complicated process involves review of the applicant's beliefs and sincerity at several levels. "The key was I had to prove I became a Buddhist while I was in the military," Delgado says.

According to regulations, a decision on such a filing should be made within 90 days. Delgado says his application packet was lost twice and took six months to reach the United States for evaluation.

After he turned in his weapons, he says, he was told to turn in the ballistic plate in his body armor: "You're an objector, so you're not going to fight."

But he was still being sent on errands into Nasiriyah, where snipers and ambushes were common. "I remember thinking, if I die picking up ice and watermelons, I will return to haunt the man who sent me on that mission."

* * *

Delgado's unit was sent to Abu Ghraib in January, several months before the abuses there became known publicly.

He says he did not know any of the people who have been charged with abusing prisoners or witness the acts they are accused of. But, he says, he did see other abuses.

His job as a radio operator gave him access to records that showed most prisoners were not Baathists or insurgents, but petty criminals, a fact that was widely reported after abuses at the prison were revealed.

"So you ended up with these civilians in the camp being held with murderers, Baathists, insurgents. If you want to know why the insurgency gained strength. . . ."

Most prisoners were housed outdoors in tents. In addition to harsh weather, they were vulnerable to mortar attacks. "The prison was shelled almost daily. It was bad enough if you were a soldier, with armor and a helmet. The prisoners had nothing to protect them and nowhere to go."

He says he thinks the conditions violated Article 88 of the Geneva Conventions, which reads, "In all places of internment exposed to air raids and other hazards of war, shelters adequate in number and structure to ensure the necessary protection shall be installed."

Many prisoners died in mortar attacks, Delgado says, and in one incident, five prisoners were shot to death after throwing rocks at guards. "I will never second-guess someone's decision when they think their life is on the line," he says of the guards. "But I will second-guess something that wouldn't fly in America."

Dov Schwartz, an Army spokesman in Washington, says he is aware of Delgado's case and his allegations about what he saw and heard while serving at Abu Ghraib. He says, "If a soldier or former soldier knows of abuses, he has an obligation and a responsibility to report it to the appropriate authorities." He points out that the problems at Abu Ghraib were first reported by a soldier.

Delgado says that although he talked with friends about what he saw, he did not report it. "There was not a lot of sympathy for me. I was already on such thin ice. They would have paid me no attention."

In the photos in his slide show, he has obscured the faces of soldiers standing over the bodies of prisoners. "I'm not interested in getting involved in a legal battle. I'm just trying to say what's going on is immoral. . . . Punishing individuals, like they're doing at Abu Ghraib, is a dead end."

* * *

"I'm a patriot, and I'm very proud to have served my country," Delgado says. "I never killed anyone, never fired my weapon at anyone, never struck anyone. But I feel responsible."

That's why he is speaking out, he says. But some of what he has to say is surprising.

Despite his own stance against war, he says, "I almost wish there was a draft. I hate to say it, and it's not the kind of thing liberals say, but then people would have to think about what it might do to people they know. It's so easy to abstract soldiers."

Nine months after he filed his paperwork, Delgado finally received notice that he had been granted conscientious objector status. He was back in Sarasota by then. He also received four medals and a "Scroll of Survival."

He was given an honorable discharge but hasn't gotten the certificate. "They lost it."

Delgado is scheduled to give his talk about Iraq in Bradenton and Venice in January. "I'm amazed by people's thirst to hear about it."

What he hopes, he says, is for Americans to pay attention to what is done in their name. "Americans are proud of our military, and they should be. We took down Saddam, and we own that.

"But there's a lot more to the occupation that we own, too."

-- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com

If you go

Aidan Delgado will speak at Fogartyville Cafe, 800 17th Ave. W, Bradenton, at 7 p.m. Jan. 11, and at the Venice campus of Manatee Community College at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 19.