Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía, the first US combat veteran to publicly resist the war, joins us to give his reaction to the so-called US withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. Mejía 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. In May 2004, a military jury convicted him of desertion, and he was sentenced to one year in prison. He served nine months behind bars, prompting Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The news networks had hours of coverage of the so-called withdrawal throughout the day yesterday. Much of it was interviewing the troops coming home and their families. Well, we’re also joined by an Iraq war veteran, one you probably won’t see on CNN or MSNBC: Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía, the first US combat veteran to publicly resist the war.
Camilo Mejía 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. Mejía 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. In May 2004, a military jury convicted him of desertion, and he was sentenced to one year in prison. He served nine months behind bars, prompting Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience. He wrote a book about his experience called The Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía. He is the former chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and he joins us now from Miami.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
CAMILO MEJÍA: Good morning, Juan and Amy.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Camilo, your reaction now to this so-called news of the withdrawal of the last combat brigade from Iraq?
CAMILO MEJÍA: My reaction is that this is just another media stunt, because what is not being reported as strongly as the final troop leaving Iraq is that we’re still leaving 50,000 troops in country, not to mention that the 4,000 who are leaving are being replaced by 7,000 security contractors, called “dirty gangs” by Iraqis. I think that basically what we have is just a recycling of forces in what effectively could be called a transferring of military duties from the US military into the hands of corporate paramilitary forces in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Camilo, as you see the coverage over the last twenty-four hours, first, you know, as one of the leaders of Iraq Veterans Against the War, do you think this is the right move, what President Obama is doing? And then, what are your thoughts, hearing, watching soldiers talking about their experiences?
CAMILO MEJÍA: I have not been really tracking the testimonies of soldiers about the alleged withdrawal of the troops. But I do think that it’s very troubling to see how the corporate media are covering this withdrawal, because very little to nothing has been said about the fact that we are privatizing just absolutely everything. Now we have the situation in Iraq where huge contracts are going to be given to these corporations to do what the US Army used to do, not that one is better than the other. I think there probably will be less accountability for private security contractors to be doing the job that soldiers, who are at least subject to be court-martialed, but are now going to be in the hands of people like Erik Prince and people like that.
We already have over 100,000 contractors in Iraq operating, many of them operating in the capacity of mercenaries. If you read the coverage by the New York Times, you realize that these are not just going to be security guards, these are going to be highly specialized former military personnel who are going to have the skills and the ability to operate radars, to go out there and find improvised explosive devices, so we’re talking about EOD personnel. You’re talking about people who are pilots. You’re talking about people who are going to be operating drones in Iraq. So this is not just people who are going to be bodyguards. You’re talking about highly specialized individuals who are going to be replacing soldiers from the US military and other special operations units within the Army. So, basically, it’s the privatization of a military occupation. It is what we’re witnessing right now, the transferring of military authorities and duties from the US military into corporate paramilitary forces.
AMY GOODMAN: Camilo, we have to break, and then we’re going to come back to you and have a debate on the issue of the DREAM Act. Camilo Mejía, first GI who served in Iraq to have publicly resisted the war. He’s with Iraq Veterans Against the War. He was imprisoned for almost a year for, well, what the military said was desertion.