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.
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.