A Deserter Speaks
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.
When the troops were ordered to perform the exact same maneuvers again, Mejia refused. "I told them, I quit." Luckily for him the four staff sergeants of the platoon that had taken casualties also refused to go out. Technically, refusing an order in a combat situation can be charged as mutiny. But in a tense meeting with their commanding officer, the staff sergeants negotiated a new plan of action that allowed the GIs to vary the timing and movement of their patrols. After these changes, Mejia agreed to go. "We went out two hours earlier than usual, and because of that we caught these young guys setting an IED (improvised explosive device) of three mortars wrapped together." If Mejia's squad had set out according the Commanding Officers' original plan, he believes that some of the guys in his squad would have been killed. For its part, the Florida National Guard claims that Mejia was a bad sergeant and that he was not aggressive enough in engaging what all admit is a highly elusive enemy.
Spc. Oliver Perez, who served with Mejia, disagrees. "I fought next to him in many battles. He is not a coward," said Perez, who has also said he will testify on Mejia's behalf if the Army proceeds with a court-martial.
During another assignment, Mejia's company ran a detention camp. "They didn't call it a POW camp because it didn't meet Red Cross standards," he explains. There, intelligence officers ordered Mejia's squad to psychologically torture three suspected resistance fighters. The hooded and bound prisoners were placed in isolation, intimidated with mock executions and forced to stay awake for days at a time. "We had one guy lose his mind. He was locked in a little metal closet that we'd bang with a sledgehammer every five minutes to keep him up. He started crying and begging to lie down." When asked how the prisoners were fed and given water, Mejia stares off into space for a moment, and then says, "I don't remember how we fed them."
This soft-spoken young man has plenty of other bad stories to tell. There's the time his squad killed a civilian who ran a checkpoint; the time they shot a demonstrator. There's the officer who forged orders so he could get his unit into combat, and the other officer who broke his own ankle to get out of combat. There is the father who wasn't allowed temporary leave even though his young daughter had been raped. And there is the GI who took shrapnel in the head and now can't talk, can't recognize his family and wakes up in the middle of the night confused and sobbing.
Given the politics of the military, it is unlikely that Mejia's serious allegations about the conduct of his superiors will be investigated, let alone prosecuted, while his own decision of conscience could be treated as a criminal matter. "I'd rather do the five to ten years in prison for desertion than kill a child by mistake," says Mejia. "When you are getting shot at, you shoot back. It doesn't matter if there are civilians around. Prison ends, but you never get over killing a kid."
So far this war has produced only a few AWOL convictions and one high-profile asylum case in Canada. Pfc. Jeremy Hinzman of the 82nd Airborne is seeking refuge north of the border on the grounds that he is a conscientious objector. Marine Reserve Lance Cpl. Stephen Funk also went AWOL and claimed conscientious objector status this past April. Funk was convicted of being away without leave, demoted, forfeited two-thirds of his pay, received a bad-conduct discharge and sent to the brig for six months. Mejia, who turned himself in at a press conference on March 15, faces five to ten years in prison. Currently Mejia is in Florida with the National Guard, awaiting administrative dismissal as a recognized conscientious objector or criminal prosecution as a deserter.