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War Resister Camilo Mejia Elected to Chair Iraq Veterans Against the War, Group Encouraging War Resistance

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Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War voted this weekend to launch a campaign encouraging U.S. troops to engage in war resistance. To underscore the point, the group elected Sergeant Camilo Mejia to chair of its board of directors. Mejia is the first U.S. combat veteran to publicly refuse to redeploy to Iraq. He is author of a new book about his experience, “The Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Camilo Mejia.” [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Members of one of the country’s leading Iraq War veterans’ organizations voted this weekend to launch a campaign encouraging U.S. troops to engage in war resistance. The decision was made at the group’s annual membership meeting held last week in St. Louis, Missouri, alongside the annual convention of the Veterans for Peace Organization. To underscore the point, Iraq Veterans Against the War elected Sergeant Camilo Mejia to chair its board of directors.

Mejia is the first U.S. combat veteran to publicly refuse to redeploy to Iraq. He served six months in Iraq in 2003 with the Florida National Guard. While on a two-week leave in the United States, he decided never to return. Mejia went into hiding to avoid redeployment and was classified as AWOL, or absent without leave. After five months on the run, he surrendered to the military at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and submitted a formal application for discharge as a conscientious objector. His application was denied.

AMY GOODMAN: In May 2004, a military jury convicted Camilo Mejia of desertion. He was sentenced to a year in prison, and he served nine months behind bars, prompting Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience.

Camilo Mejia has written a book about his experience. It’s called The Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia. Camilo joins us today in our firehouse studio in New York, just back from St. Louis. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Camilo.

CAMILO MEJIA: Thank you, Amy and Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk first about this decision of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group of, what, more than 500 people to actively encourage war resistance?

CAMILO MEJIA: Last count was 525 members, with new members joining every day, Amy. And the decision was made to, as an organization, support war resistance within the military as a way to undermine the war effort.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the growth of that resistance movement over the last couple of years — obviously since you were one of the first — how do you see that developing?

CAMILO MEJIA: I think we’ve come a long way from the time when I resisted the war. Like Amy said, I was the first public combat veteran to refuse to redeploy to Iraq. Back then, when I went public with my refusal to go back to the war, we had approximately 22 cases of desertion in the military. And then, by the time I got out of jail, that number was 5,500. Today, it’s over 10,000 people within the military who are refusing to go to the war in Iraq since the war started. And just to put it in perspective, that’s almost like saying like the 101st Airborne Division was wiped out by desertion or AWOL, basically people not wanting to fight the war.

AMY GOODMAN: How many?

CAMILO MEJIA: Over 10,000 people. So that’s the equivalent to an Army division.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pentagon is not talking about this.

CAMILO MEJIA: No, they’re not talking about it, but USA Today reported last year, I believe, early last year, 8,000 people, and it’s probably a lot more, when you talk to organizations like the GI Rights Hotline, who, you know, get a number of calls from people trying to find out information about discharges and about what happens once they go AWOL, what happens once they resist to go back to the war. And their numbers are, you know, an indication that the actual number is much higher.

Also, we have some new developments in the war. We had — a long time ago, we all heard about the company of truck drivers who refused to go out on what they considered to be a suicide mission. We also have the case of a soldier called Eli Israel, who refused to go out on combat missions while being in Iraq and was threatened by the military with court-martial. He finally got a summarized court-martial, and he’s back in the States. But this level of resistance not just, you know, coming from people who have served in Iraq and have come back and refused to go back, but now we have people on the ground in Iraq who are refusing to go out on combat missions, which I think is pretty significant.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And one of the things, it seems to me, that has happened, talking to quite a few veterans who have returned maybe or on leave, that those who go AWOL, it’s not as if the military publicizes it or actively goes after them, unless they become public, like in your case, right?

CAMILO MEJIA: Exactly, although that also has changed. We have cases of people who have not yet gone public and yet had been seized in their home. For instance, we have the case of Suzanne Swift, who was, you know, apprehended by police without even a search warrant at her mother’s house, and she had not gone public at that time. And she had refused to go back to the war, because she had been subject to military sexual assault and command rape from her leadership and being forced to go back to the war with the same unit and with the same people who had attacked her.

So we have a movement that is not necessarily just politically against the war, but we have all kinds of reasons why the military is becoming increasingly disaffected with the government and with the mission in Iraq. You know, we had the women who died of dehydration, because they stopped hydrating themselves after noon, because they were being raped on their way to the latrine. We have the lack of equipment; you know, while they’re saying “Support the troops,” and the war is costing $5 billion a month, you have troops going out on combat missions without the proper equipment, without radio equipment. Sometimes we had to suspend missions in my combat unit, because we didn’t have enough water. So you have a number of reasons, you know, from political to family issues to command rape to lack of equipment, why people are basically refusing to go back to the war, saying, you know, we don’t want to fight this war for this or that reason.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There’s also been a very sharp drop, reportedly, in the numbers of African Americans that are enlisting in the Army. Isn’t there a — I read a report recently, where there’s been a sharp drop in the percentage of African Americans in the Army now.

CAMILO MEJIA: Right. I read the same report. Unfortunately, however, as the rates drop for African Americans, the rate for Hispanics is growing. And the military is aggressively targeting Hispanics to join the military. Some people may have heard about the DREAM Act, through which the military hopes to recruit undocumented youth who are graduating from high school. The proposal is to serve two years in the military or go to college for two years and then get your green card, which 65,000 people who are undocumented and graduate from high school and are not eligible for financial aid from the federal government are not going to be able to go to college for two years. So, you know, this is one of the ways in which, you know, the military is targeting young immigrants, mostly Latinos, to join the military. You know, it’s — again, it’s a poverty — it’s an immigration draft that’s going on. So while we see the numbers of African Americans dropped in terms of recruiting, the numbers of Hispanics is actually increasing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Camilo Mejia, first soldier to refuse to return to fight in Iraq that we publicly know of, has written his own life story: The Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia. Camilo, this is a very moving, beautifully written book, and you begin with your parents in Nicaragua. Talk about your background, your family’s background.

CAMILO MEJIA: Well, I was born in '75 in Managua, Nicaragua, at a time when there was a military dictatorship in place that was backed and financed and supported by the United States. And there was a rebellion. There was an insurgency, you know, against this military dictatorship of Samosa, and both my father and my mother were a part of it. My dad was a musician — and, well, he still is a musician — and he was very active with the antiwar movement — I'm sorry, the anti-dictatorship movement within the universities and at the grassroots level. And my mother was doing sort of outreach with the communities, you know, trying to link the needs of the people to the goals of the revolutionaries.

Later on, we moved to Costa Rica, where my mother continued doing her work running safe houses for the resistance and facilitating command meetings and training sessions, while my dad had to go into exile into Spain, because his music had turned too subversive for the regime to put up with, until the Sandinistas were able to overthrow the dictatorship, and we all went back to Nicaragua and stayed there for the entire period of the Sandinistas.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, when your father was — in that period when he was still in Nicaragua before the triumph of the revolution, he had a regular radio show that was extremely popular. Could you talk about that show?

CAMILO MEJIA: Yes. It was a popular character called Corporito, and he used this character to basically poke fun at the regime, you know, and to point out things like the —

JUAN GONZALEZ: At the Samosa regime.

CAMILO MEJIA: At the Samosista regime. And to poke fun at, for instance, like the corruption, you know, how, you know, the upper classes was basically, you know, getting richer and richer, while the people of Nicaragua were suffering and not had enough food, you know, disaster relief that was going into the pockets of the dictator and those close to him, a number of things. And —

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was during the period of the great — after the earthquake.

CAMILO MEJIA: After the earthquake, exactly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Managua, right?

CAMILO MEJIA: In Managua, which I believe happened in ’73 or perhaps December of ’72. So there were a lot of things going on that my dad used to basically create this satire and just poke fun at the regime, which increased his popularity. And in the beginning, it was just kind of annoying for the regime to have someone being publicly critical, and in a funny way, of their regime. But later on, my dad became more radical, and he became a militant of the Frente Sandinista, and he started writing songs, you know, to basically rally the people to get ready for an armed revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: And your mother got involved with Daniel Ortega’s younger brother named, well, Camilo, like you.

CAMILO MEJIA: Camilo, yes. And some people think that he’s my dad, but he’s not. I was born after they met. But, yes, he was killed in combat, unfortunately, a month before the triumph of the revolution. But, yes, we were involved with all of them, with Daniel, who’s now president again, with Humberto, who was the general of the army, Camilo, and all of the leaders who were involved in the overthrowing of the regime and who later became commanders of the revolution were part of our daily life.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So how does a young man with this history of such radical parents, anti-imperialist parents, end up joining the National Guard in Florida?

CAMILO MEJIA: Well, actually, I first joined the active-duty Army as an infantryman, and then I finished my — well, I’m still in the military, but I meant to finish my contract with the National Guard. And what happened was basically that throughout the years that we lived in Nicaragua, we lived in relative privilege. You know, we belonged to this just sort of political upper middle class. And I did not really develop a political conscience, you know, the whole time I was growing up.

And then there were changes once the Sandinistas lost the election, and we moved back to Costa Rica, which is my mom’s native nation, and then from there we came here. There was a huge change socially, financially, culturally, and suddenly I found myself for the first time having to work for a living, not having any prospects in terms of going to college, no health insurance. All of the things that I always took for granted were now missing from my life.

So, in that sense, I was not very different from someone who joins the military after living here their entire life. The military seemed to hold the promise of a better future, you know, college education, financial stability, adventure, comradery, and so I joined the military after two semesters at a community college in Miami and after the federal government refused to renew my financial aid because they felt that I was making enough money — a minimum-wage job — to finance my own tuition.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about your time in Iraq, this “road from ar Ramadi.”

CAMILO MEJIA: My time in Iraq changed my position from being against the war politically and really being against the war in Iraq, exclusively, to having a more — to having a broader antiwar stance and to have, you know, a more moral and more spiritually driven opposition to the war, because it was no longer something that I looked from afar, where I was saying to myself, “Well, we’re going after Saddam Hussein for weapons of mass destruction.” And here we have, you know, the U.N. inspectors saying, “No, we don’t think that there are any weapons. We need more time.” So all the political reasons that led to war basically did not make any sense to young Mejia when I deployed to Iraq. So, politically, I was very opposed to the war.

But once we got there, the first mission that we had was one in which we deprived prisoners of sleep. And we did that by using psychological torture techniques, such as, you know, creating loud noises to make the prisoners believe that they were being — they were about to get killed by an explosion, keeping them deprived of light, destroying their sense of space, using handguns to — you know, put them up to their heads to make them believe that they were about to be executed, and doing a number of things that just did not seem like the kind of thing that people join the military to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And who were these people?

CAMILO MEJIA: These people were just regular people. They were people who were caught with a weapon, perhaps because they were sheepherders and they need the weapon to protect their animals, or people who were caught with a wooden crate that at some point in history contained explosives, and that was enough to consider them to be enemy combatants. So the criteria behind, you know, detaining these people and labeling them “enemy combatants” was very loose, very arbitrary. And yet, we were there, you know, basically abusing these people.

And this was the first eye opener when I went to Iraq, that it’s not just the political implications or like the political reasons behind the war or what led to the war, but also, you know, the human component, you know, how are we treating these people, how are we treating these human beings. But at the same time, in that environment that’s very dangerous, that’s not very welcoming for a soldier to basically analyze the war philosophically or morally, because you’re being threatened every step of the way, and the number one thing that occupies your mind, at least in my case, was to get out of that place alive and to survive.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Once you were arrested and then sentenced, your time in military prison, could you talk about any reactions with the other soldiers there and what their response was to your opposition?

CAMILO MEJIA: Yes. Well, it’s a very different pool of people when you look at military prison, because in the larger military, the active-duty military or the reserve component, we have this subculture of fear and complacency and blind obedience, where people basically believe that they have waived their rights to have their own opinion, to voice their concerns, to have a political mind. Individuality is highly discouraged by the military. So when people agree with you as you take your antiwar stance and go public with it, they don’t necessarily dare to come forward and tell you, you know, “I support you.”

I did have some people come up to me — particularly after I appeared on 60 Minutes and lot of people recognized me on the base — before my court-martial would come up to me and secretly support me. But once I went to jail, you have still a military population, but you have people who have been accused of something, tried by court-martial, sentenced and who are serving their time. So they feel like they have nothing to lose. They owe nothing left to the military, so they speak freely. And, by and large, everyone at the prison, you know, basically supported me. And being an AWOL and being a conscientious objector and being a public resister actually raised my ranking in the military hierarchy. You know, I was sort of like the equivalent to a bank robber in a civilian jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia, what about your unit in Iraq? What was the reaction then — you went on leave, but refused to return — and has it changed over time?

CAMILO MEJIA: Well, I had members of my squad testified in the court-martial on my behalf, not necessarily taking a pro- or an antiwar stance, but basically saying that they believe that I was a person who acted upon principle, they believe that I was someone who really cared about human life, and things like that. So they were really supportive, in terms of my squad.

In terms of the larger unit, my platoon and my company, I have not really been in touch with many of them. And part of that is that a lot of my activism has not really taken place in Miami, but I have been really traveling for a long time. I do know that some people within my unit were very angry about my decision. Some people within my unit still to this day believe that we had a right to go into Iraq, that we went into Iraq to get Saddam Hussein out of power because he was a criminal. And, you know, all of these reasons that they gave us to justify the war, some people in my unit still believe in those reasons and still hold, you know, a critical position against my stance.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the reaction of your parents and also back home in Nicaragua? What’s been the coverage of your situation back there?

CAMILO MEJIA: My parents supported me 100 percent in my refusal to go back to Iraq. My parents did not want me to deploy to Iraq in the first place. They believed that this was an illegal war of aggression, and they did not think that, even after signing a military contract, I had any obligation to serve in a military endeavor of such, you know, questionable legality. So they were very supportive when I decided not to go back to Iraq.

The people in Nicaragua — I suppose it was sort of redemption for the family name, because first you have like this son of revolutionaries, you know, joining the U.S. military and going to war in Iraq, and so it’s a big question mark for a lot of people, you know: How did this guy end up in the U.S. military and in Iraq? And then, when I refused to go back and go public, and, you know, the news gets really huge, I think a lot of people really liked seeing that. And I had a lot of support on many different levels.

Even the Catholic Church supported me as a conscientious objector, at least until I went public and they knew that I was Carlos Mejia’s son, because there had been some beef between my dad and the Catholic Church because of his work, the “Peasants’ Mass,” which is a very popular version of the musical stages of the Catholic Mass. So there had been some beef between my dad and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. But before they knew that I was Carlos Mejia’s son, they were very supportive of me, as well.

The human right groups in Nicaragua were very supportive of me. The people were very supportive of me. And I could not be happier with the kind of backup that I have had from my family and my countrymen.

AMY GOODMAN: Now you have become chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and you are launching the organization Truth in Recruiting campaign in September. Can you explain what that is?

CAMILO MEJIA: Sure. Well, we are launching a number of actions that we had, and Truth in Recruiting is one of them. What we’re basically going to do is we are going to continue doing what we have been doing, but we’re going to up the tempo. We are going to increase the number of members who are going to go into high schools to inform young people about the reality of the military and about the reality of war. Far from telling them not to join the military, we are going to tell them, “You want to join the military, this is what could happen to you. This is what’s happened to our members. This is what the contract means. This is what stop-loss is. This is what conscientious objection is,” so to basically inform them and thus empower them to make an informed decision.

We are going to go into recruiters’ offices, and we’re going to talk to the recruiters. And this, in time, is going to — in turn, is going to take up their time, so they’re not, you know, out there basically lying to young people about, you know, the many wonderful benefits of the military, without talking about the realities of war.

And we’re going to continue doing, you know, what we’re doing. We’re going to continue going out into recruiting events. And we just had one action, actually, at the St. Louis conference. Across the street, there was a convention, an African-American expo, where they had the America’s Army game, and they were basically targeting like, you know, kids as young as 12 years of age, you know, teaching them that the military is cool and the military is good for you. And, you know, about 90 of us went in there, and, you know, we had this very military-style formation. And, you know, we all sounded off, saying, you know, “War is not a game. War is not a game. War is not a game.” And then we leafleted the families and the youth with our fliers, you know, that talk about the reality of being in the military, which talk about our position as veterans against the war. And this is basically what’s behind this campaign and this effort, you know, to basically inform young people about the realities of the military.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask you — I mean, as someone who’s somewhat familiar with what happened back during the Vietnam War period, I myself in 1972 was arrested by 13 FBI agents for not participating or responding to my draft call when I was member of the Young Lords. But I remember back those days there was a huge coffeehouse movement outside of all the military bases by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and other groups, where they would have basically set up coffeehouses to try to get to reach the soldiers on the bases as they were coming back and forth from Vietnam. Has there been anything similar in terms of attempts to reach these huge — the towns where so many of these military bases are, by setting up some kind of an ongoing presence there?

CAMILO MEJIA: There has been. Actually, we’re not too far into that effort. But there is already a coffeehouse, a GI coffeehouse, outside of Fort Drum in upstate New York in a town called Watertown, where they have a cafe called Different Drummer Café. And the person who actually helped start this café, his name is Tod Ensign. He’s probably been on this show before. He’s the director of Citizen Soldier, and he’s been working with GI resistance since the Vietnam War.

And actually, tonight I’m going to have a reading there at the Different Drummer Café at 6:30 p.m., and we’re going to have a meeting with an active-duty chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which is also pretty significant, that we actually have active-duty chapters of this antiwar organization that we’re organizing, that we’re reaching out to active-duty personnel, and that we’re having these kind of events outside of bases. But I think that the movement is still young in that aspect, but we are, you know, upping the effort, and we’re working with members of the active-duty military.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Camilo’s book is called Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia.

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