I don’t like doing this. It’s not something I want to do,” says Aidan Delgado of his public presentations. “I feel like I have to do it.”
A veteran of the Iraq war, Delgado, 23, has spoken to students, churches and peace groups across the country. “The media’s not giving the full picture,” he says. “Nobody’s seeing the ugly side, the underside of the war, and it’s something that I’ve seen, so I feel like I have to share it with people.”
In March, Delgado participated in a daylong teach-in on military recruitment at Berkeley High School in California. Students and concerned teachers organized the event in response to the increased presence of recruiters, who are able to target high school students like never before, thanks to Section 9528 of the No Child Left Behind Act. “There’s a lot about being in the army that recruiters are not going to tell you,” Delgado says.
Delgado signed up for the Army Reserves on the morning of September 11, 2001. Shortly after signing his contract, two infamous planes hit the World Trade Center, gravely affecting the consequences of his enlistment. Like a lot of enlistees, Aidan was looking for something meaningful to do with his life and the Army seemed like a good opportunity. However, joining the reserves no longer means part-time weekend duty; it increasingly requires seeing “action.” About a year and a half after joining the reserves, Delgado was deployed to Iraq.
Unlike most soldiers, Delgado speaks Arabic, having grown up in Egypt as a diplomat’s son, and was able to communicate with Iraqis. He thought differently about fighting after interacting with prisoners of war. “When I came face to face with the people who were supposed to be my enemies, I thought that I had no reason to fight them,” he says. “They were the same as the guys in my unit.” The captured men were mostly young and uneducated, and did not have many choices in life.
“I felt like they were trapped in the war as much as I was and we were all victims of it, so I felt that fighting them would be wrong,” he says.
During his third month in Iraq, Delgado told his commander that he wanted to be a conscientious objector. “I turned in my weapon, I said ‘I’ll stay. I’ll finish my duty, but I’m not going to fight. I’m not going to kill anyone.’”
Obtaining conscientious objector status was difficult. Delgado endured investigative interviews, bureaucratic paper work, and harassment from his superiors and his peers, some of whom regarded him as a traitor. His commanders also confiscated part of his body armor, rescinded his leave time and assigned him to 16 – 18 hour shifts. Delgado was granted conscientious objector status and an honorable discharge only after completing his year-long tour in Iraq.
At Berkeley, Delgado began his slide show by explaining, “I’m not trying to shock you. I’m not trying to show you war pornography, but you’re getting to the age now when you’re going to have to deal with this stuff … if you’re old enough to fight, you are old enough to see what the reality is.”
The teenagers gasped as Delgado presented one of the more gruesome slides of a man’s head ripped open by machine gun bullets – a prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison, where Delgado’s unit was stationed during the final six months of his deployment. Delgado was at Abu Ghraib when the infamous torture occurred. Although he did not have direct knowledge of the incidents, he had heard rumors of abuses.
The man depicted in Delgado’s slideshow was killed during a prison protest on November 24, 2003. Armed with sticks and stones, the prisoners demonstrated against their harsh living conditions. The soldiers on duty secured permission to use lethal force in response, wounding nine and killing three. Afterwards, a few of the soldiers photographed each other posing with the corpses. “This was real common stuff at Abu Ghraib,” Delgado says.
Delgado challenged the students to think critically before enlisting in the military. After receiving a chorus of boos in reply to his question of whether the students liked high school, Delgado said that the military was quite similar to high school, only “your toughest teacher lives with you and has a gun.”