Back from the fighting, a US vet tells all and refuses to serve
Camilo Mejia joined the Army in 1995 to get college assistance and new experiences. Following a three-year hitch, he joined the Florida National Guard, partly for promised tuition assistance at Florida’s state universities. Mejia, a Nicaraguan citizen, had moved permanently to Miami with his mother when he was 18 years old and is a permanent resident with a green card.
On March 15, 2004, after six months’ duty in Iraq, Staff Sergeant Mejia decided to leave the military and talk about what he saw. His first engagement was a public rally and press conference at the Peace Abbey near Boston, MA. The next day, he submitted a formal application for discharge as a conscientious objector (CO) to Maj. General William G. Webster, Jr., commanding general of Ft. Stewart, Georgia. Mejia provided details of the torture and abuse of detainees he witnessed at Al Assad prison, adjacent to Baghdad’s International airport, in early May 2003.
After his CO application was filed, no one from General Webster’s staff contacted Mejia regarding his allegations. Facing court martial for desertion of duty in Iraq, Mejia based his defense partially on international law violations he witnessed when his unit mistreated Iraqi detainees five months before the period covered by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s May 2004 report on Army torture at Abu Ghraib prison.
Middle East Revelations
Mejia was entering his final semester of college in January 2003 when his unit was activated. But while he was at Ft. Stewart for pre-mobilization combat training, he noticed that reservists “passed” every test, despite often deficient performances. “The training at Ft. Stewart was merely intended to make our unit deployable,” he explained later. “I knew a soldier whose hearing had been impaired after many years’ service in the artillery. But this didn’t matter; they checked the ‘pass’ box for hearing on his medical form. Another requirement was that we qualify with our rifles. After several attempts at the firing range, many soldiers still couldn’t qualify, but they were all judged to be qualified.” After a few weeks of training, Mejia’s unit was flown to a Middle Eastern country they were told not to identify. After guarding a Patriot missile base there, they were sent to Iraq in April 2003. Here is his eyewitness account:
“On May 30, my squad was ambushed for the first time in the eastern part of Ar Ramadi in what was called the ‘Sunni Triangle.’ We heard a whistle as we passed an area that was notorious for bombed out buildings. Next, a bomb exploded in the road in front of our lead Hum Vee. Prior to this attack, I had briefed my squad on what I understood to be Standard Operating Procedure [SOP], which was that if we were ambushed, we should ‘haul ass’ while returning fire. Following the blast, bullets rained down on us from rooftops on both sides of the road as we drove out of the area.
“Back at the base, we were euphoric that no one had been hurt in the ambush. My commander, XO [executive officer], and 1st Sgt. immediately asked to be briefed. When I told them what happened, they asked me why we had fled rather than staying and fighting. I told them that it was SOP to try and drive out of an ambush. They agreed, but added that we had just sent the wrong message to our attackers, because our mission is not to run from the enemy, but to kill them. The next morning, our commander passed down word that in the future, we should not celebrate our ‘failures’ and that celebrating our escape sends the wrong message to other soldiers.
“It dawned on me that protecting our troops didn’t rank very high on our leaders’ agenda. Medals, glory, and ‘sending the right message’ were all worth the lives of a few soldiers. This war was more complicated than I had imagined. Not only did we have to be careful with the enemy, but we had to be careful with our own leaders, too.”
Second Class Soldiers
“In my experience, our unit of activated reservists was treated differently than active duty GIs. For example, when one of our soldiers was injured or killed, we didn’t receive a replacement. It was the same thing with supplies and equipment. We never really got resupplied with the ammo, weapons, vehicles, night vision gear, etc. that we consumed. We left the States without even having a basic clothing supply. As far as ammo, we traveled with just a basic combat load and weren’t resupplied. In some instances, we had to exchange ammo magazines within our platoon before going out on missions. When an improvised explosive device [IED] blew up one of our vehicles, we didn’t get a new one.
“This shortage of personnel drove my commanders to do some pretty despicable things. The soldier I mentioned earlier with defective hearing was kept in the unit even though an IED explosion had made his hearing even worse. I remember lending him my notes after our squad leaders’ meeting since he couldn’t hear our platoon leader’s briefing. This would directly affect his proficiency as a squad leader. He didn’t dare request to be sent home, but he did ask the doctors to get him a hearing aid. One of our doctors told him to ‘get out of my face’ and to wait until our deployment was over.
“Another soldier whose surrogate mother was dying was denied permission to return home, while another’s request to visit his 13-year-old daughter who’d just been raped was also turned down.”
Witness to Horrors
“When I saw with my own eyes what war can do to people, a real change began to take place within me. I have witnessed the suffering of a people whose country is in ruins and who are further humiliated by the raids, patrols, and curfews of an occupying army.
“One of our sergeants shot a small boy who was carrying an AK-47 rifle. The other two children who were walking with him ran away as the wounded child began crawling for his life. A second shot stopped him, but he was still alive. When an Iraqi tried to take him to a hospital, Army medics from our unit intercepted him and insisted on taking the injured boy to a military facility. There, he was denied medical care because a different unit was supposed to treat our unit’s wounded. After another medical unit refused to treat the child, he died.
“Another time, my platoon responded to a political protest in Ar Ramadi that had turned violent. My squad took a defensive position on a rooftop after some protesters started throwing grenades at the mayor’s office. We were ordered to shoot anyone who threw anything that looked like a grenade.
“I also learned that the fear of dying has the power to turn soldiers into real killing machines. In a combat environment, it becomes almost impossible for us to consider things like acting strictly in self defense or using just enough force to stop an attack.
“Going home on leave in October 2003 provided me with the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to my conscience. People would ask me about my experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors – the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood, the time a man was decapitated by our machine gun fire, and the time my friend shot a child through the chest.
“Coming home gave me the clarity to see the line between military duty and moral obligation. My feelings against the war dictated that I could no longer be a part of it. Acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and by putting my weapon down, I chose to reassert myself as a human being.”
Questioning the War
For refusing further military service, Mejia was convicted of desertion on May 21 and sentenced to a year in jail, the maximum penalty. He was also given a bad conduct discharge. During his trial, defense attorney Louis Font attempted to bring in expert witnesses to testify that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq violates international law, including the UN Charter. Font is a cooperating attorney with Citizen Soldier, a non-profit GI rights advocacy group that says objectors should be separated administratively from the military rather than put on trial.
In early May, Font filed a request asking that Gen. Webster lift his order restricting Mejia to Ft. Stewart so that he can travel to Washington, DC, to brief congressional staff members concerning detainee mistreatment. As director of Citizen Soldier, I have provided Senators Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin, both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, with details about Mejia’s testimony and proposed that he be called as a witness when their committee further probes this issue.
As the first US veteran of the Iraq war to publicly refuse further service, Mejia has discussed his resistance with Dan Rather on CBS’ Sixty Minutes; Capa and Canal TV, CNN; Asahi TV; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Dialogue show; and various newspapers and magazines including the Chicago Tribune, Le Journal du Dimanche (France), the Guardian (UK), the Shukan Bunshun weekly (Japan), and Il Manifesto (Italy). In the months ahead he plans to continue speaking out in support of other resisters to this illegal war.
Citizen Soldier provides updates on Mejia’s case at www.citizen-soldier.org . The group is also collecting contributions for his defense. Make checks payable to Citizen Soldier, 267 Fifth Ave., #901, NY, NY 10016. To support refusers like Mejia, write to Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee, the Pentagon, Wash., DC 22202. Send letters of protest to Major Gen. William R. Webster, Jr., Commanding General, 42 Wayne Pl., Ft. Stewart, GA 31314.