WUERZBURG, Germany (Reuters) - A U.S. army medic who fled his base and refused to return to Iraq with his unit was sentenced on Tuesday to eight months in prison for desertion.
Mexican-born combat medic Agustin Aguayo, who describes himself as a conscientious objector, is one of the first U.S. military personnel to be convicted of desertion in relation to the Iraq conflict.
The ruling comes as support in the United States wanes for the war.
Aguayo, 35, pleaded guilty to going absent without leave and missing his deployment, but denied charges of full desertion.
But Colonel Peter Masterton, the judge at the court-martial in southern Germany, said the court had found Aguayo guilty as charged and sentenced him to eight months in prison.
Aguayo has been fighting for three years to be recognized by the army as a conscientious objector. He served one term as a medic in Iraq in 2004, during which he said he refused to load his gun while on guard duty.
"I believe I am an objector to war," said Aguayo, with tears in his eyes, in court.
"When I hear privates say they want to kill someone or slash peoples throats ... stuff like that hurt me."
He escaped through a window and left his base in Schweinfurt, Germany, in September 2006, shortly after missing his unit's redeployment, and went missing for several weeks before turning himself over in California.
"I tried to do everything right, obey all the rules, but I couldn't continue. I couldn't bear weapons," said Aguayo.
The father of two has already spent 161 days behind bars and could have been sentenced to up to seven years.
"We are both very grateful that the military judge gave a relatively light sentence," civil defense attorney David Court told reporters after the trial.
The military court also ruled Aguayo should forfeit his paid allowances, be given a bad conduct discharge and have his rank reduced to the lowest grade.
The case follows the high-profile trial in February of First Lieutenant Ehren Watada -- the first known court-martial of a U.S. Army officer for publicly refusing to serve in Iraq. Watada's court-martial ended in a mistrial.
A key issue in court was whether Aguayo quit his unit with the intent to avoid hazardous duty and shirk important service.
"His service was going to be important as a medic regardless of whether he was carrying a weapon or not," said prosecution lawyer Captain Derrick Grace. "But instead the accused decided to jump out of his window and run away."
A deserter is defined by the U.S. Department of Defense as a member of the armed forces who is absent from their unit or post without authorization, quits their unit to avoid duty or enlists improperly in another service.
The U.S. Department of Defense recorded a total of 4,494 deserters in 2005, according to official data.
There will be an automatic appeal.