The young man across the table looks sad, but not as stressed as one might expect from a US Army deserter. Camilo Mejia served with a unit that crossed into Iraq just after the invasion and then, for five months, fought in the counterinsurgency war in the Sunni Triangle, where he says he was in firefights, killed people, almost got killed, helped torture prisoners and finally had his life saved by a small-scale mutiny. Now he is a declared conscientious objector who spent five months absent without leave, facing the wrath of US military justice.
In October, when he was home on furlough, Mejia decided to ditch the killing and chaos of Iraq. Although the military never officially charged Mejia with desertion, he spent the rest of the autumn and winter living like a fugitive, never using cell phones, credit cards or the Internet for fear of being busted. He was frequently on the move and survived on the good will of friends.
There are dozens of other soldiers who have refused to show up for their deployments, but the military doesn’t pursue most of them and usually releases them from service without too much fuss. Most AWOL soldiers don’t even get tracked down. However, if a soldier goes public to make a political point, the military response can be severe.
“This is an immoral, unjust and illegal war,” says Mejia. “The whole thing is based on lies. There are no weapons of mass destruction, and there was no link with terrorism. It’s about oil, reconstruction contracts and controlling the Middle East.” Like many US troops, Mejia is a recent immigrant, but unlike many he is from a left-leaning bohemian family; his father is an internationally famous Nicaraguan musician, Carlos Mejia Godoy, and his mother was active with radical movements in the 1980s. Mejia, however, says he used to be apolitical. When he moved to the United States as a young adult, he joined the military “to become an American and know the culture.”
Just before Mejia’s eight years of service were up, he found himself in Iraq. “After the war people were cheering, but within a week or two they were asking when we were going to leave and getting angry. And then it became clear that nothing was getting reconstructed, people’s lives weren’t getting better. We had all these deadlines, for setting up the police, getting the power back on, whatever, and nothing ever got done, nothing changed or got better,” Mejia explains. “And then the resistance started.”
To make matters worse, Mejia found his officers to be glory-obsessed and intentionally reckless with the safety of their men. In particular, he says, they wanted the Army’s much-coveted Combat Infantry Badge–an award bestowed only on those who have met and engaged the enemy. “To be a twenty-year career infantry officer and not have your CIB is like being a chef and having never cooked or being a fireman and never having put out a fire,” Mejia says. “These guys were really hungry, and we were the bait.”
In one attempt to draw enemy fire, Mejia’s company–about 120 guys divided evenly into four platoons–was ordered to occupy key intersections in Ramadi, a notoriously violent Iraqi city, for several days running. “All the guys were really nervous. This was a total violation of standard operating procedure. They train you to keep moving, not sit in the open.” Finally the enemy attacked, and a platoon in Mejia’s company took casualties.