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Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, 28, of Miami, Florida joined the Army in 1995 as a way to get college assistance and in search of new experiences. Following a three-year hitch with the Regular Army, he joined the Florida National Guard partly because he was promised tuition assistance at Florida's state universities. Mejia, a Nicaraguan citizen, had moved permanently to the US with his mother when he was eighteen years old. He is a permanent resident who holds a "green card."
"...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."
He was entering his final semester of college in January 2003 when his unit was ordered activated. His unit, C Company, 1-124 INF of the 53d Infantry Brigade was sent to Ft. Stewart, GA for pre-mobilization combat training. While at Ft. Stewart Mejia, who was a squad leader, noted that every reservist "passed" every test, even when their performance was deficient.
In Camilo's words: "The training at Ft. Stewart was merely intended to make our unit deployable. A soldier is not supposed to deploy if he or she doesn't pass a physical exam. 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 qualifed. Training cadres would initially fail a few soldiers and then change this to a passing score. Not a single soldier ever had to go back to the range for testing. Every soldier passed every test the same day they were tested."
During a battalion parade, our commander, a Lieutenant Colonel, told us that he was not going to return to Florida without a Combat Infantry Badge, a medal awarded only to infantrymen who had been under direct enemy fire."
In the Middle East
After a few weeks of training, Camilo's unit was flown to a Middle Eastern country they were told not to identify. Following duty there guarding a Patriot missile base, they were sent into Iraq in April 2003.
"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 with our weapons. 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, 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 celebrating our escape also 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 also 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."
"It also bothered me that we weren't allowed to use the mess hall or commissary of the 82d Airborne, our parent unit. In my mind, we should have been treated as equals since we were all taking the same risks."
"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 while sitting a few feet away. 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."
The Making of a Conscientious Objector
"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, curfews of an occupying army. My experience of this war has changed me forever."
"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 civilian 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. A young Iraqi emerged from the crowd carrying something in his right hand. Just before he threw it, we all opened fire, killing him. The object turned out to be a grenade, which exploded far from everyone. I know that the man we killed had no chance of hurting us-he was too far away. My platoon leader later told us that we killed three other Iraqis during this same protest although I didn't see them die."
"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 what my conscience had to say. People would ask me about my war 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."
Surrendering to the Military: Challenging the War
On March 15, 2004, Sgt. Mejia spoke at a public rally/press conference at the Peace Abbey, near Boston, MA and then surrendered to military authorities. Once he is assigned to a military base, the command will decide whether to prefer criminal charges or separate him administratively. Meija could be charged with both desertion and "missing a movement to avoid hazardous duty" Each carries a maximum prison term of five years. He could also be given a Dishonorable Discharge. If he is placed on trial, Citizen Soldier cooperating attorney Louis Font, of Boston, will offer expert witnesses to testify that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq violates international law, including the UN Charter. In addition, Meija will file an application for discharge as a Conscientious Objector (CO).
Speaking Out Against the War
As the first American veteran of the Iraq war to publicly refuse further service, Sgt. Mejia has discussed his resistance with Dan Rather on CBS' "Sixty Minutes," Capa and Canal TV, France, 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 will continue to speak out in support of all resisters to this illegal war.
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