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Jailed War Resister Camilo Mejia on His 9-Month Jail Sentence, Torture in Iraq and Why He Refused to Fight

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Mejia was the first US soldier court-martialed for desertion and was ultimately sentenced to a year in jail. He was released in mid-February. Mejia spent six months in combat in Iraq where he witnessed the killing of civilians and the abuse of detainees. After He returned to the United States he decided never to return to fight in Iraq. He went into hiding to avoid redeployment and was classified as AWOL by the military. He spent five months underground. [includes rush transcript]

As Pablo Paredes faces up to a year in jail, we are also joined by a soldier who has just been released after serving 9 months for his refusal to fight in Iraq-Camilo Mejia. He was the first US soldier court-martialed for desertion and was ultimately sentenced to a year in jail. He was released in mid-February. Mejia spent six months in combat in Iraq where he witnessed the killing of civilians and the abuse of detainees. He returned to the United States in October 2003 for a two-week leave when he decided never to return to fight in Iraq. He went into hiding to avoid redeployment and was classified as AWOL–or Absent Without Leave–by the military. After five months underground, he surrendered to the military at Ft. Stewart, Georgia and submitted a formal application for discharge as a conscientious objector. His application was denied. In May 2004, a military jury convicted him of desertion. Camilo Mejia joins us now in our Fire House studio.

  • Sgt. Camilo Mejia, was one of the first US soldiers to refuse orders to deploy to Iraq. As an Army staff sergeant, he fought in Iraq for five months but refused to go back after returning home. He spent five months in hiding before surrendering to the military. He was recently released from prison.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia joins us in the studio now, the Florida Army National Guardsman who went to Iraq, returned from Iraq on leave and then refused to return. Why, Camilo? You had gone. Why come back and then refuse to go back?

CAMILO MEJIA: Well, to be honest with you, I first went to the war because I was afraid. Because politically, much like anyone here would disagree with any war politically, I disagree with the war. I disagree with the reasons that the government had given for the invasion. I didn’t think that we had made a case as a government. I mean, that the government had made a case for weapons of mass destruction or links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. So, politically, I was very much in disagreement with the war, but I didn’t really want to make a stand, because I was terrified, because I didn’t want to go through a court-martial, because I didn’t want to go to jail, because I was a squad leader in an infantry unit, and I didn’t want my friends to think I was a coward or a traitor. Also, because there was no war at the time. We were deployed to the Middle East in early March of 2003, and part of me, I guess, was hoping that there wouldn’t really be a war, it would just be like a huge show of force to scare Saddam out of power. It was very naive of me. We went and then there was war. Then as an infantry man and as an infantry squad leader, you know, we engaged in combat, and we did raids, and we did security escorts, and we did some missions with prisoners of war, and I started realizing pretty much that it wasn’t really the war in Iraq, but it was just every war. However, it’s really hard to come to any conclusive realization while you are there, because you’re in so much danger. And I guess the survival instinct kicks in and pretty much all you care about is to get out of there, to get out of there alive with your comrades. So, there’s very little political or moral questioning of the war. You just want to get out of there.

AMY GOODMAN: You said you did some missions with P.O.W.s. What?

CAMILO MEJIA: When we first got to Iraq, first we went to the Baghdad International Airport and then we went to another place, which is also part of this complex, which is called Al-Assad. And Al-Assad was was pretty much an air force base for Saddam’s army. And in one of those bunkers, one of those jet bunkers, they had an improvised detention camp for the detainees. And pretty much what it was was, you know, areas made by concertina wire, which is worse than barbed wire, and they had military police units bringing in detainees. And then you had what we call spokes in the military, which are people that no one knows who they are or where they come from. They wear no unit patch or anything. And they pretty much made an initial assessment, and they decided who was or who wasn’t an enemy combatant, and then we separated these people into groups. Those who were deemed enemy combatants were kept on sleep deprivation. And the way we did that was when we arrived there, we relieved another unit, and then they told us the easiest way to do that is just by, you know, yelling at these people, telling them to get up and to get down. They were hooded prisoners. Yell at them, tell them to get up and get down. Let them sleep for five seconds, so they will get up disoriented. Bang a sledgehammer on a wall to make it sound like an explosion, scare them. And if all of that fails then, you know, cock a .9 millimeter gun next to their ear, so as to make them believe that they’re going to be executed. And then they will do anything that you want them to do. In that manner, keep them up for periods of 48 to 72 hours in order to soften them up for interrogation. These were the kind of things that they were asking the infantryman to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you do those things?

CAMILO MEJIA: Not really, because we weren’t there very long. We only were there for six hours with these enemy combatants and it was during the daytime. Some of the guys in my squad did yell at them on my orders. They used the sledgehammer. I don’t think they used the gun. But then we were relieved and then they were taken away. It was enough to see who was going. It was enough to see that this was a systematic problem from the very top. You know how they speak of a few bad apples, but it’s not really true. You know, you have very high government officials or perhaps contractors directing the shots, telling soldiers what to do. There’s no accountability, because you don’t know who these people are.

AMY GOODMAN: You said you went on raids. What were they like?

CAMILO MEJIA: Well, you would get information on people setting up improvised explosive devices, known as I.E.D.s, and people mortaring army bases. And based on this intelligence, you would set up — you would come up with a plan and depending on the size of the target, you know, it could be down to a squad level all the way up to a battalion level, and you would pretty much surround the whole place and go in there, you know, set up a security element, a casualty collection point, and then go in there with your squad, depending on whatever mission you had, and just raid the home. You go in there two or three in the morning, put everybody from the household in one room and then take the owner of the house, who is usually a man, you know, all through the house into every room, open every closet and everything and look for weapons and look for, you know, literature against the coalition. And then get your detainees and move out.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you read the literature?

CAMILO MEJIA: No. Because it was in Arabic. So, it’s really hard. And the info was really bad, too. Sometimes they would tell us, you are looking for a man, you know, who’s 5’7”, dark skin, has a beard, which is like about 90% of men in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Camilo Mejia, who has just come out of jail, nine months there, after being court-martialed for refusing to return to Iraq. The issue of going to Iraq, fighting supposedly for this country, not being an American citizen. Can you talk about that?

CAMILO MEJIA: Well, the issue of being an American citizen, before we go into that, how do you define an American citizen? I came here when I was a baby. I learned to walk in New York City. I graduated from high school here. I have lived here longer than in any other place. I went to college. My daughter was born here. I went to war with the U.S. Army. I made a public stand because I believed in the law, and because I believe in dissent. So, the issue of being an American citizen, I guess, is the issue of how far you are willing to go for this country. In whatever way you choose to find. I believe that this is my home. So, fighting for this country was not a problem, you know, whether you are a resident or a citizen. I think that the real question is how far are you willing to go for what you believe in, for what you love.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece in The New York Times by James McKinley, “Mexican Pride and Death in U.S. Service.” It says at least 22 Mexican citizens have died fighting for the United States in two years of war. As of January, 41,000 permanent resident aliens, as the Times puts it, were in the United States armed forces, more than 3,600 of them from Mexico. Mexicans, the largest group among the 63 immigrants who have been killed in action in Iraq, says the Pentagon. For many, armed service is seen as a fast track to citizenship. During wartime, foreigners with residency permits need only to serve honorably for their citizenship to be all but guaranteed, say immigration officials. Of course, they must survive, as well. Fernando Suarez del Solar, who we’ve had on the show, a U.S. citizen who began a family in Mexico with a Tijuana woman, said a Marine Corps recruiter started working on his son Jesus when the boy was 14, still living in Tijuana. He said the recruitment system really goes after the Hispanic community. A lot of Hispanics are born in Mexico but live in the U.S., don’t have citizenship and they see a good option in the army to get papers, to get citizenship more quickly. And one thing the recruiters often say is that military service will make it easier for them to become accepted in society. Fernando Suarez del Solar is one of the first fathers here in this country to have lost his son in the invasion of Iraq: Jesus Suarez del Solar. Your family comes from Nicaragua.

SGT. CAMILO MEJIA: Well, my father is from Nicaragua. My mother and my mother’s side of the family come from Costa Rica, and so I have actually dual citizenship from Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

AMY GOODMAN: And you come from a family of rebels, I think you could say. Could you tell us about your father?

SGT. CAMILO MEJIA: Well, my father at one point was considered the official singer of the Sandinista Revolution. He wrote the hymn for the Sandinista Party. He was very much involved in the revolution in his own way. You know, I don’t think he ever fired a rifle in his whole life, but he sang many songs that, you know, got people going. And after the trial for the revolution, he served as a diplomat overseas and he also served as I guess some sort of a congressman, but you know, he would always fall asleep in the meetings and everything. He is mostly a musician and — well, I grew up in that revolution. You know, I grew up for about ten, 11 years lived there as a kid. But it was so strong, that heritage and I guess the pressure to be like your parents and to be like your father, who is such a public figure, and who has contributed so much to the Sandinista revolution that I guess I just turned my back on it, because I wanted to find my own way, and I guess joining the military was the culmination of that. People were very shocked when I did that. I guess the state of rebellion was there somewhere, but you know, the right conditions were not given until I went to Iraq for me to actually hear that voice and say no. But it’s always been a part of me. It’s just been dormant for a long time. But now — you know, I just cannot ignore it anymore. I cannot pretend that the world is perfect and that there’s nothing worth fighting for out there, other than myself. So — I guess that — that family background has finally kicked in and, you know, given me a new conscience.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you plan on applying for U.S. citizenship?

SGT. CAMILO MEJIA: It’s hard right now to tell because we’re appealing the conviction. There’s no conviction actually, right now; the judge hasn’t ruled on it. But once there’s a conviction, we will appeal the conviction. As it stands right now, I don’t think I can get citizenship, because the conviction goes against good moral character. I don’t think a judge would grant me citizenship now. It’s too early to tell, but if given the opportunity, yes, I will. I will apply.

AMY GOODMAN: And if given the opportunity again, would you resist war again?

SGT. CAMILO MEJIA: Well, I don’t think I would ever put myself in the position where I would have it make that choice, but if it happened, of course, I would resist war.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia, I want to thank you very much for being with us today. I look forward to hearing your speech tonight at Ethical Culture Society as we kick off our Un-Embed the Media Tour. Again, that event in New York as we celebrate community radio station, Pacifica radio station, WBAI, tonight at 7:00 at Ethical Culture Society at 2 West 64th Street, Central Park West and 64th, with Phil Donahue and Juan Gonzalez, Bernard White of WBAI and Jeremy Scahill of Democracy Now! and my brother David Goodman and I, as we kick off the paperback edition of The Exception to the Rulers.

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