By Rebecca LaFlure
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – A Fort Hood soldier who believes the war in Afghanistan is "immoral and unjust" was sentenced to a month in jail and stripped of his Army rank Wednesday for refusing orders to deploy to Afghanistan.
Victor Agosto, 24, tore the specialist rank off his uniform after the sentence was read. He was later escorted out of the building to Bell County Jail as a group of supporters shouted they loved him and flashed peace signs.
Agosto, who served 13 months in Iraq with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, pleaded guilty to disobeying a lawful order during a summary court-martial at Fort Hood Wednesday. He was demoted to private – the lowest Army rank – and denied two-thirds of one month's pay.
During the trial, the soldier from Miami said he did not oppose the wars in the Middle East when he enlisted in 2005. "I still believed we had something good to do there," Agosto said.
It was not until he deployed to Iraq that he began to have doubts, he said. When Agosto returned from Iraq in November, he thought his Army contract would end this summer. Instead, Agosto was ordered to Afghanistan under the stop-loss program, which extends the tours of military service members beyond their contracts.
At the end of April, Agosto went public about his intent to resist the war, and in May, he refused an order from his company commander to prepare to deploy. Agosto said he did not apply for conscientious objector status because he does not oppose all wars.
"It doesn't recognize people who object to only certain wars," Agosto said during the hourlong military hearing. "I had no way of being consistent with my conscience ... I believe future courts will recognize the war in Afghanistan as illegal because it violates international law."
Capt. Theresa Santos, who served as the judge, declined to comment on her decision.
Col. Ben Danner, III Corps public affairs officer, said Wednesday's court-martial was not about a soldier refusing to deploy for combat, but rather, the refusal of a lawful order from a noncommissioned officer to report to the Soldier Readiness Check site.
"The Army is a values-based organization which embraces the values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage," Danner said in a statement Wednesday. "For a soldier to violate military law by refusing to obey orders is a serious matter."
Agosto's lawyer, James Branum, said he plans to appeal for a shorter jail sentence due to legal errors in Wednesday's court proceedings. The judge began to ask Agosto questions after he gave an unsworn statement, which is not allowed.
"She should've known not to ask him questions," he said. "It was enough of an issue to knock off some time."
Branum said Agosto will likely be given an other-than-honorable discharge, but that's a process separate from the court-martial.
Cindy Thomas, manager of Under the Hood Café in Killeen and an Army spouse of 17 years, spoke on Agosto's behalf during the trial. No one was called to testify against him.
"I have not met a soldier with more integrity than Victor Agosto," Thomas said. "Victor feels so strongly in following his conscience that he's willing to give up his freedom – the very freedom that our country asks our soldiers to fight for."
Agosto has become a well-known figure in the peace movement since he went public about his resistance to the war in April. An online petition in his favor has received more than 2,000 signatures, and prominent philosopher and professor Noam Chomsky wrote a letter in support of his decision.
About 50 supporters, including several active-duty Fort Hood soldiers, assembled outside the Fort Hood East Gate Wednesday evening, toting signs that read, "Free Victor," and "You can imprison the person, not the idea."
"I am completely content to spend a month in jail for the sake of my conscience," Agosto said in a statement read by Branum at the protest. "My only regret is that I did not begin refusing orders sooner. My only apologies are to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that someday they can forgive me for my contributions to their distress."
Agosto was recently nominated to the board of the Iraq Veterans Against the War. The organization's national convention convenes in Maryland this week, and Agosto could be announced as a board member while in jail.
Agosto is not the only Fort Hood soldier who has resisted the war in Afghanistan because of his beliefs. Sgt. Travis Bishop, also with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, faces a special court-martial next week. The soldier went AWOL when he was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan at the end of May because he said war goes against his Christian ethics. He turned himself into his unit a week later and could be sentenced to up to a year in jail.