Standing Down

A soldier can follow his conscience and refuse to fight, but his real struggle is just beginning.
by Published on
photo by Steven Doll, Killeen Daily Herald
Ben Kessler of Denton demonstrates at an anti-war protest outside Fort Hood, July 8, 2010.

Courage comes in more than one form, but sometimes it’s easier to recognize. For instance, few would deny that Marine Cpl. Garrett Jones is a hero. Whether you support the war or not, Jones was willing to sacrifice life and limb in a war we’re all responsible for. Then do it again.

Jones, then 21, was on a foot patrol in Karmah, Iraq, near Fallujah, when a roadside bomb exploded. Jones, badly injured, lay in a ditch until another soldier pulled him out. His left leg was mostly gone below the knee. Eight months later, fitted with a prosthesis, Jones rejoined his unit a few weeks after they deployed to Afghanistan. “You have to be a combat veteran to really grasp the loyalty and brotherhood that exists there,” Jones, who now studies community health at Western Oregon University, says. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the Marines who were by my side when I got hurt. They’re like family to me. It was about loyalty to my guys.”

That’s not the only kind of courage. If courage is taking action because you have a conviction it’s the right thing to do regardless of consequences, then it would be hard not to apply the same word to soldiers who refuse to fight.

These are soldiers who risked everything and faced harsh consequences  for not going to war. Men and women who have decided they couldn’t follow through on what they’d signed up to do—kill other human beings in the name of the United States. They have their own reasons for refusing to go. For many, the decision is personal and political—and so are the consequences. These soldiers spend time in jail, but that’s the least of it. They also have to accept that they are letting down soldiers who depended on them. They face the inevitable fact that many people will see them as cowards.

 

Each soldier has a reason for joining the Army, but the desire to serve doesn’t always match up with the reality of war. Victor Agosto joined when he was 20 years old and a student at Miami-Dade College. “I was tired of sitting in classrooms. I wanted to go out and see the world. I thought it’d be cool to protect the American people.”

It’s a young man’s view of the world and his perspective matured in Iraq. He served in the 57th Signal Brigade, which was mostly confined to an Army base. He didn’t see combat. Sgt. Jose Lomeli, who served in Iraq with Agosto, says the greatest dangers included “over-exercising or tripping over a rock.” Agosto concurs. “I never felt any danger,” he says.

He was aware that he was part of an effort larger than he was. For many soldiers, that’s comforting. Not for Agosto. He filled his evenings by reading authors like Noam Chomsky to understand what, exactly, he was doing there. “I started looking for answers,” he says, “because it really doesn’t make sense when you listen to the justifications. The war was just part of an imperial competition between the U.S. and other major imperialist powers to control resources in the Middle East.”

Upon returning home and learning that his unit would be redeployed to Afghanistan, Agosto told his company commander that he wouldn’t be joining them. “I was very nervous,” he says. “I thought they’d take me off to jail immediately.”

His superiors couldn’t do anything until Agosto missed his deployment. He did his best to make it clear that he would stand by his words. He became a regular at Killeen’s anti-war coffeehouse, Under The Hood Café, and got into heated conflicts with his first sergeant. He took on one of the loneliest missions imaginable—becoming an activist soldier. “I had been disillusioned by the war since [I was in] Iraq, really, so there was a point where I stopped trying to make new friends,” he says.

Until deployment, the most severe consequence Agosto faced was being yelled at by his first sergeant for refusing to begin “soldier readiness processing,” the Army program that prepares soldiers for deployment. He took refuge in the support system at Under The Hood. “They definitely made me feel like I wasn’t alone during the process,” he says. Until deployment day, Agosto was in the same situation as many other soldiers—waiting for something to happen. When he didn’t show up to ship out, he was charged with refusing to obey a lawful order, court-martialed and sentenced to 30 days in the Bell County Jail. 

Soldiers are incredibly loyal to each other. They’ll help each other and their families through the stress of multiple deployments. When soldiers refuse to deploy, they discover the other side of this community. All that brotherly love can turn to wrath. On the military blog This Ain’t Hell, combat veteran Jonn Lilyea called Agosto the “coward of the month.” Upon Agosto’s release, Lilyea suggested, “Now that Agosto is out of prison, he can go anywhere he wants. I urge him to go to a country that doesn’t embarrass him quite so much.” Other comments on This Ain’t Hell and other blogs can’t be reprinted here.

Agosto is stoic like a soldier. He remains involved with the anti-war movement and other left-wing causes. “My life is activism,” he says. He’s happy to give interviews to papers like Socialist Worker. He frames his resistance in explicitly political terms and explains that he didn’t apply for conscientious objector status because he wasn’t one. “The Army’s definition of a conscientious objector is someone who refuses to fight in any war, but that’s not how I felt. My opposition was against these wars. If it became a matter of conscience, it wouldn’t have really challenged us being at war.”

This is how Agosto talks about almost everything related to resistance. Ask him the price he paid for resisting, and he’ll keep the focus on practical matters. (“I paid into the GI Bill for a year, but I don’t get any of that.”) Ask him about what he gained, and he’ll talk about how people listen to him more as an activist. How he’s someone whom people in the anti-war movement call a “soldier of conscience” who’s “a bit more influential” than, say, a college student.

The closest he will come to talking about personal feelings is listing some disappointments since he chose to resist. “I think I overestimated the impact of it,” he says. “I totally would do it again, but I think I was a bit naïve about how movements grow. I hoped that it would be a kind of catalyst for future resistance. One of the main ways to end the war is grassroots resistance from within the military.”

How did his family react? “They didn’t know,” he says. How did they find out? “Over time.” He hesitates, then adds, “There’s certain parts of this that I would rather not discuss.” On political matters, a smart guy like Agosto can feel confident in his decision. The personal side is messier. “I will say that, for me, it was much harder to face rejection from within my family than from society as a whole. I wasn’t concerned if people from all over the world hated me for what I did. But I wasn’t sure how my family would react.”

He adds, “If there’s ever mass resistance to the war in Afghanistan, there’ll be at least two prominent examples [of soldiers who resisted].” The second example is a soldier who served alongside Agosto in the 57th Signal Brigade, Sgt. Travis Bishop.

 

Agosto, like many activists, is able to put politics above his own emotions. Bishop can’t. Bishop is a friendly 27-year-old from La Grange, Ky., easy to talk to and sincere, with ambitions of being a country music star. According to friends, he’s the life of the party, a born entertainer who adores women and singing karaoke. He speaks with the slight Southern accent you find sometimes in Northern Kentucky. Like a lot of young men from the South who love country music and join the Army, Bishop is a devout Christian.

Bishop didn’t see combat in Iraq either. “By Army standards, I was quite a lucky soldier,” he says. A highlight of his deployment in Baghdad included opening for country star Toby Keith when he played for the troops, which is preserved on a YouTube video. Bishop sang a song he wrote called “Who’s Your Friend?” It’s clever, like something Brad Paisley might have written. As he introduced it, he flirted with a girl in the audience, asking her name and dedicating the song to her. He sang a sweet verse about how he’s had his eye on her since the moment he saw her, and how he can’t resist asking her a question, before dropping the punch line in the chorus: “Who’s your friend? / I noticed her when you walked in.”

 

 

Bishop was known as an easy-going guy during his deployment to Iraq. But then he was called up to Afghanistan. “When you hear how bad Afghanistan is and you have a battalion commander telling you how much you’re going to have to train for it, you can only be told so many times that you’re probably going to have to open fire during your deployment before you start believing it,” he says. He started questioning what it meant to be a Christian soldier. “My reason for picking up my Bible was that I might actually have to kill someone,” he says. He decided it wasn’t something he could do.

Cindy Thomas, manager of Under The Hood Café, explained to Bishop what a conscientious objector was. He decided to apply. With a few days left until his deployment, he went AWOL for a week to finish his application. He turned himself in to his superiors. His commanding officers breezily rejected his application (“evangelical groups … make good soldiers,” the denial read). Bishop was charged with two counts of missing movement, disobeying a lawful order, and going absent without leave. He was convicted at court martial and received the maximum sentence: one year at the regional corrections facility at Fort Lewis. “The guards regarded us as the dregs of society—no better than terrorists. We were pond scum to those people,” says Bishop. He got out after a year and was given a bad conduct discharge.

Bishop says Agosto’s example was one of the reasons he could refuse to deploy. “To see someone in my unit actually stand up and say, ‘No,’ that helped a lot,” he says. Bishop wasn’t reading books deconstructing American hegemony when he made his decision. He became more political after committing to it, speaking at his share of anti-war rallies and attending a handful of Iraq Veterans Against the War events, but activism was never a path he planned. “If [the anti-war movement] ever asked for my help, or wanted something from me, I’d do it in a heartbeat, there’s no question,” he says. “But as far as actively pursuing it on my own, I still have a life to live. I want to pursue my music, possibly go to college. I want to work on me first.”

Bishop has been out of military prison for 11 months. He’s back in Kentucky, focusing on his music by playing open mics and trying to get a band together. Ask him if he has any regrets, and you get puffed-up bravado: “My only regret is not doing it sooner.” Bishop doesn’t sound like he really believes that. When he talks about what he lost, you hear plenty of regret.

salute

Like Agosto, he’s been lambasted on the Internet, and sometimes by people he served with. Sgt. Jose Lomeli served with Bishop in the 57th Signal Brigade and was waiting for him in Afghanistan when he refused his deployment. His comments online are some of the most personal, and brutal. “Moral courage to ‘resist’ is not true courage like deploying for a year with your brothers,” he wrote on Bishop’s blog after he was released. “A good Christian and great sergeant/soldier (what you were) goes to battle to defend his way of life.” That’s a point that Lomeli stands by. “He’s a coward in my eyes for not voicing his opinion to his peers and for not showing up,” Lomeli says. Bishop will probably have to deal with such comments for a long time. It’s been almost two years since his conviction, and 11 months since his release, but there are fresh posts attacking him on This Ain’t Hell.

Bishop had a best friend whom he had served alongside in Iraq. “If you talk about best friends, this is the guy,” he says. When Bishop refused to go to Afghanistan, this friend was promoted to sergeant and sent in Bishop’s place. That fact weighs on him. He says his relationship with the friend, which had become strained, seems better now, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty in his voice. “He’s hopefully still my best friend. He was at that point,” Bishop says. “I would have done absolutely anything for him. He was my brother. We’ve talked since, and it seems like maybe we’re OK now.”

He had soldiers—“my joes,” he calls them—who were supposed to serve under him, and he stayed behind. Though he says these soldiers don’t resent him or challenge his decision, he can’t talk to them. Even when they reach out, send him e-mails or hit him up on Facebook, he can’t do it. “These are pretty normal e-mails,” he says. “‘Hey man, how are you doing?’ e-mails.” They pile up in his inbox with no reply. “I’m not ready to answer them yet,” he says. “Even online, I’m not ready to look them in the eye.”

Bishop came out of jail so devastated that he didn’t go to his family in Kentucky for a month. Instead, he spent the time back in Killeen, sleeping on the couch at Under The Hood. To hear Bishop tell it, his time at Under The Hood was like a month-long slumber party. “It was a great time, absolutely. Immediately back in the old rhythm, immediate family. It was great,” he says. “I can’t wait to go back.”

Cindy Thomas’ recollection reveals another side to Bishop. “When he came back, he was not the same person,” she says. When another soldier who frequents the coffee shop asks her what she means, she says, “Oh, honey. You should have met Travis before.” The coffee shop has a couch and a TV, an Xbox and a collection of DVDs, so it seems like a comfortable place, but Thomas found herself awakened by Bishop knocking on her door some nights. “Can I come up and stay in your house?” she remembers him asking. “I don’t want to be by myself.”

Bishop paid a heavy price in friendships with his fellow soldiers—the same bonds that drove Cpl. Garrett Jones back to Afghanistan on one leg. Seeing his best friend go without him was the heaviest part of his decision. “Ultimately, it got down to, ‘Who am I making this decision for, me or him?’” Bishop says. “And as painful as it is, I had to make the decision for me. [My best friend] struggled with a lot of the same things, but ultimately he was willing to get over it, and I wasn’t. Knowing that he and the rest of my joes would have to be going without me, that was one of the only hard decisions about it.”

 

Bishop can list the things he sacrificed. “I lost best friends,” he says. “There’s some family that doesn’t even discuss what I did. These are just things I have to deal with.” He keeps a brave face about everything except the joes. “It’s so hard to own up to the people that you left behind,” he says. 

Agosto says he doesn’t struggle with the same problem because he did what he did to inspire soldiers like Bishop to refuse deployments. In his eyes, he didn’t make anyone serve in his place because they could have chosen not to go, too. “My refusal doesn’t make any other soldier go any more than I was forced to go,” he says. On this point, Bishop has a lot more in common with Cpl. Jones.

As he watched his buddies head back to war without him, Jones recognized that he couldn’t live with that. He pushed himself to find a way to rejoin them. Bishop, meanwhile, concluded that, as hard as it might be to see them go, it would have been harder to
ignore his conscie
ce. Months after returning home, he’s a struggling country musician trying to make a career in a genre that hasn’t got a great track record of embracing anti-war voices. He’s working at the mall, trying to repair broken relationships and still pondering things other soldiers seldom deal with.

It’s simple to say Bishop and Agosto took the easy way out. The truth is, there is no easy way out.

Bishop’s days of activism are on hold, maybe for good. He still aspires to be a country music star. Now he must face the world—and Nashville’s famous disdain for anti-war musicians. He says he’ll stand by the choices he made regardless of the consequences. “I could care less about what my decision has to do with my music,” he says, “so long as they don’t expect me to write a song called ‘Excuse Me For Having An Opinion.’”  

 

Dan Solomon lives in Austin. His work has appeared in The Onion A.V. Club, Spin, Austin Monthly and MTV.com.