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Camilo Mejia, 1st GI to Publicly Resist Iraq War, Appeals Bad Conduct Discharge

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Camilo Mejia is the first GI who served in Iraq to have publicly resisted the war. He was imprisoned for refusing to return. Today, he is appealing his bad conduct discharge from the military. We speak to Mejia along with his attorney, Anjana Samant of the Center for Constitutional Rights. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now to Camilo Mejia. I think he knows exactly how Victor feels right now. Camilo is the first GI who served in Iraq to have publicly resisted the war and was imprisoned for refusing to go back for almost a year. Camilo Mejia is the chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He has written a memoir called The Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Camilo Mejia.

Today Camilo joins us from Washington, DC, on his first day of the Veterans for Peace conference in College Park, Maryland.

We’re also joined here in our firehouse studio by Camilo’s attorney, Anjana Samant from the Center for Constitutional Rights. She is filing an appeal today regarding Camilo Mejia’s bad conduct discharge from the military.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Camilo, I know you just flew in to Washington. What is it exactly that you are asking for today in this appeal? And your thoughts as you listen to Victor? It sounds like you were in a similar position a while ago.

CAMILO MEJIA: Yes, Amy. We find ourselves in the same situation as, you know, 2003 and 2004, when I took my stands, having returned from Iraq. And that’s basically — you know, I mean, you had Jeremy speak about the situation in Iraq and how we continue to use mercenary forces there and how we continue to act with absolute impunity. And I think that, you know, when you have the commission of war crimes and torture and other war atrocities, and you prosecute people who blow the whistle on that, you’re actually encouraging that behavior to continue to happen. And I feel that it’s necessary not only for GIs to continue to take stands in the way that Victor is doing today, but also for people to continue to support war resisters and to continue to fight, you know, our battles, in the courtroom as well as, you know, in the battlefields and the military bases.

AMY GOODMAN: Anjana, can you explain what it is you’re filing in court today and where you’re filing it?

ANJANA SAMANT: Absolutely. We’re filing an appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The court-martial, which took place in 2004, was the first trial level of the process. After the panel members, which is the jury in a court-martial, convicted Camilo, there was an intermediary appeal that was filed. That court affirmed the conviction and the sentence.

At this point, we’re going to be asking the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which is a five panel judge court — five panel judges — in Washington, DC, to review the actual trial and certain rulings by the judge for error. And specifically, the issues that we’re concerned about is the fact that the military judge did not permit Camilo to launch a full defense, based on his argument that in light of the orders that he was given, in light of the conduct that he was asked to commit, the actions that he was required to do with respect to Iraqi detainees and as part of carrying out his combat duties, those actions violated international law. Those actions violated international law as embodied in Army Field Manual 27-10. And this is one of the strongest defenses we felt that Camilo had, which is that when he left his unit, when he refused to redeploy, he did so because, based on his firsthand inexperience, based on his knowledge of what he would be asked to do when he goes back, would violate international law.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo, for viewers and listeners who are not familiar with your case, go back in time. Explain the time you served in Iraq and what happened when you returned.

CAMILO MEJIA: Yes, Amy. This was in the very beginning. We arrived in — well, actually, we arrived in the Middle East, and in the beginning of March, we first served two months in Jordan. And then we went to Iraq at the end of April of 2003.

And the first mission we had there was to run a POW camp in a place called Al Assad. And at this place, our job was basically to, quote-unquote, “soften up” prisoners for interrogation. And the way that we did that was by utilizing certain psychological torture techniques to keep them sleep-deprived for periods of up to four days, and we did that by performing mock executions and using explosion-like sounds to scare the prisoners and just inflicting fear in their hearts in order to keep them awake.

AMY GOODMAN: You did this, Camilo?

CAMILO MEJIA: We did some of that; we didn’t do all of it, not because we objected to it enough to refuse, but because we didn’t have the equipment. For instance, we didn’t have the nine-millimeter pistols to perform the mock executions. But we did use the sound, and we did use the sleep deprivation and lie deprivation. We deprived them of a sense of space. And we were trained on how to do certain things in order to basically break their notions of just every — just about every psychological notion, in order to break down their morale and, you know, through exhaustion, you know, get them to do whatever it was we wanted them to do.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you decide this wasn’t the right thing to be doing?

CAMILO MEJIA: When I came home. This mission was followed by more intense combat missions. I was an infantry squad leader, a staff sergeant in Iraq. So we, unlike Victor, you know, we were out there, you know, doing missions, raiding homes, and doing things like that. And the environment was so intense that it was really difficult to take stances, you know, morally or philosophically, because you were just really concerned with survival.

But once I came home and, you know, had a little bit more time to think about everything that happened and also, you know, carrying my political opposition from before deployment, I just realized that I had to make a choice between obeying my commanders or obeying my conscience. And in the end, you know, I decided that I could not in good conscience continue to be a part of the war.

AMY GOODMAN: So, two things. You offered to testify before Congress about what you saw in Iraq, and you also went underground?

CAMILO MEJIA: I did went — I did go underground in the beginning, because I was very afraid of what the military would do to me. And at that time, the antiwar movement was deactivated largely, I think. We were all very demoralized by the fact that over ten million people took the streets, and yet we invaded. So there wasn’t really a whole lot of support in the beginning, other than my family’s support and a few organizations that were coming together. I had moral and intellectual clarity on what path I should follow, but I was very afraid of what the Army would do to me. So it took me five months to go public, and once I did, you know, I felt really empowered to do so. And I have no regrets about it.

I’m sorry, I forgot the second part of your question.

AMY GOODMAN: You offered to testify before Congress?

CAMILO MEJIA: Yes, part of my case was that we tried to bring my conscientious objector claim into the evidence. And part of that was actually a detailed account of what we did in Al Assad in terms of torture of prisoners. And we offered Senator Clinton, at the time, the evidence and my testimony before Congress, and, you know, they declined. They said that, no, that they would wait for the military to conduct their own investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long did you serve, and where did you serve time in jail, in the brig?

CAMILO MEJIA: I was given a twelve-month sentence, but I only did nine months, or just eight months and about a little bit over three weeks in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo, you’re now the chair of the board of Veterans for Peace. It’s having its annual convention at University of Maryland, College Park?

CAMILO MEJIA: The chair of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

AMY GOODMAN: Iraq Veterans Against the War, sorry. The numbers of soldiers who are resisting right now — can you put your experience, Victor’s experience, in context? What are the numbers? Thousands of people?

CAMILO MEJIA: Tens of thousands of people. It’s difficult to put a real number to it, because you don’t really know what happens to them. You don’t know if they go back to the military and then get, you know, re-sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, or if they get administratively discharged. Obviously, it doesn’t look good for the military to discharge, you know, forty or fifty thousand conscientious objectors or send forty to fifty thousand people to jail. So it’s really hard to, you know, put a hard number on it.

But to put this in context, you know, when I first came back from Iraq, there were only twenty-two cases of desertion from the war effort, and that number had risen to 500 by the time I surrendered myself five months later, and to 5,500 by the time I got out of jail some ten months later or eleven months later. And now it’s in the tens of thousands. So resistance has grown a great deal; it’s just not being reported.

AMY GOODMAN: And your message — the same question I asked Victor — to US soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and here at home on bases all over or even soldiers who are AWOL right now?

CAMILO MEJIA: The same that Victor just said, you know, that I cannot — I could not agree more with Victor that following one’s conscience is, you know, the greatest thing that you could do, is the greatest way to assert your freedom as a human being. And if you follow your path, whatever that path is, you can’t — you just can’t go wrong.

For Victor, that meant, you know, taking a stance at Fort Hood and say no and not applying for conscientious objection. For me, it took a little bit more time. It took me five months to come to terms with my fear and take a public stance. And my route was conscientious objection, because I do object to all wars. But whatever the case may be, I think that once you follow your conscience, you assert your freedom in a way that you can’t by following orders that you disagree with.

AMY GOODMAN: And are you surprised you’re doing this during this new administration? I mean, you were punished under the Bush administration. Victor is doing this under President Obama.

CAMILO MEJIA: I’m not surprised at all. I think that Victor said it, you know, before, that Obama said that he was going to increase our presence in Afghanistan, but also because the promise of hope, at least in my opinion, has been very — has been quite superficial. For GIs, the situation has not really changed, in terms of the care that we are receiving, in terms of the repeated deployments, you know, the lack of time in between deployments, all of these things. It’s a little bit harder to fool GIs into believing in real change, when the reality does not change for us. So, for us, there’s not been a real promise of change. And I agree with Victor. I could not agree more with him that if we want real change to happen, it has to be effected from the bottom up.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia, I want to thank you for being with us. Anjana Samant, thank you, from the Center for Constitutional Rights. The case will be filed — the appeal — today in court here in New York. Camilo Mejia, going off to the University of Maryland, College Park campus for the annual meeting of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He’s chair of the board. His book is called The Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Camilo Mejia. Our break will be the music of Camilo’s father, Mejia Godoy, known as the musician of the Sandinista revolution.

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