Camilo Mejía: The Private Rebellion of a Staff Sergeant

Date/Time
Date(s) - Tuesday 10/28/2008
7:00 pm - 10:00 pm

Author, anti-war activist, prisoner of conscience and chairman of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Camilo Mejia will speak about his experiences and his book "Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejía" at The Sanctuary for Independent Media on Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 7 PM. Admission is by donation ($10 suggested, $5 student/low income). The Sanctuary for Independent Media is located at 3361 6th Avenue in north Troy (at 101st Street). Call (518) 272-2390, email info@MediaSanctuary.org, or visit www.MediaSanctuary.org for directions and more information.

 

After serving in the Army for nearly nine years, Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía was the first known Iraq veteran to refuse to fight when he applied for discharge from the army as a conscientious objector, citing moral concerns about the war and occupation. The principled stand described in his memoir, “Road From ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sargeant Camilo Mejia” (just published on Haymarket Books), helped rally the growing opposition and embolden other soldiers. He was eventually convicted of desertion by a military court and sentenced to a year in prison, prompting Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience.

Regaining My Humanity

By Camilo Mejia
CodePink.org

Thursday 17 February 2005

I was deployed to Iraq in April 2003 and returned home for a two-week leave in October. Going home gave me the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say. People would ask me about my war experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors-the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood or an innocent man was decapitated by our machine gun fire. The time I saw a soldier broken down inside because he killed a child, or an old man on his knees, crying with his arms raised to the sky, perhaps asking God why we had taken the lifeless body of his son.

I thought of the suffering of a people whose country was in ruins and who were further humiliated by the raids, patrols and curfews of an occupying army.

And I realized that none of the reasons we were told about why we were in Iraq turned out to be true. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. We weren’t helping the Iraqi people and the Iraqi people didn’t want us there. We weren’t preventing terrorism or making Americans safer. I couldn’t find a single good reason for having been there, for having shot at people and been shot at.

Coming home gave me the clarity to see the line between military duty and moral obligation. I realized that I was part of a war that I believed was immoral and criminal, a war of aggression, a war of imperial domination. I realized that acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and I decided that I could not return to Iraq.

By putting my weapon down, I chose to reassert myself as a human being. I have not deserted the military or been disloyal to the men and women of the military. I have not been disloyal to a country. I have only been loyal to my principles.

When I turned myself in, with all my fears and doubts, it did it not only for myself. I did it for the people of Iraq, even for those who fired upon me-they were just on the other side of a battleground where war itself was the only enemy. I did it for the Iraqi children, who are victims of mines and depleted uranium. I did it for the thousands of unknown civilians killed in war. My time in prison is a small price compared to the price Iraqis and Americans have paid with their lives. Mine is a small price compared to the price Humanity has paid for war.

Many have called me a coward, others have called me a hero. I believe I can be found somewhere in the middle. To those who have called me a hero, I say that I don’t believe in heroes, but I believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

To those who have called me a coward I say that they are wrong, and that without knowing it, they are also right. They are wrong when they think that I left the war for fear of being killed. I admit that fear was there, but there was also the fear of killing innocent people, the fear of putting myself in a position where to survive means to kill, there was the fear of losing my soul in the process of saving my body, the fear of losing myself to my daughter, to the people who love me, to the man I used to be, the man I wanted to be. I was afraid of waking up one morning to realize my humanity had abandoned me.

I say without any pride that I did my job as a soldier. I commanded an infantry squad in combat and we never failed to accomplish our mission. But those who called me a coward, without knowing it, are also right. I was a coward not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place. Refusing and resisting this war was my moral duty, a moral duty that called me to take a principled action. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier. All because I was afraid. I was terrified, I did not want to stand up to the government and the army, I was afraid of punishment and humiliation. I went to war because at the moment I was a coward, and for that I apologize to my soldiers for not being the type of leader I should have been.

I also apologize to the Iraqi people. To them I say I am sorry for the curfews, for the raids, for the killings. May they find it in their hearts to forgive me.

One of the reasons I did not refuse the war from the beginning was that I was afraid of losing my freedom. Today, as I sit behind bars I realize that there are many types of freedom, and that in spite of my confinement I remain free in many important ways. What good is freedom if we are afraid to follow our conscience? What good is freedom if we are not able to live with our own actions? I am confined to a prison but I feel, today more than ever, connected to all humanity. Behind these bars I sit a free man because I listened to a higher power, the voice of my conscience.

While I was confined in total segregation, I came across a poem written by a man who refused and resisted the government of Nazi Germany. For doing so he was executed. His name is Albrecht Hanshofer, and he wrote this poem as he awaited execution.

Guilt

The burden of my guilt before the law
weighs light upon my shoulders; to plot
and to conspire was my duty to the people;
I would have been a criminal had I not.

I am guilty, though not the way you think,
I should have done my duty sooner, I was wrong,
I should have called evil more clearly by its name
I hesitated to condemn it for far too long.

I now accuse myself within my heart:
I have betrayed my conscience far too long
I have deceived myself and fellow man.

I knew the course of evil from the start
My warning was not loud nor clear enough!
Today I know what I was guilty of…

To those who are still quiet, to those who continue to betray their conscience, to those who are not calling evil more clearly by its name, to those of us who are still not doing enough to refuse and resist, I say "come forward." I say "free your minds." Let us, collectively, free our minds, soften our hearts, comfort the wounded, put down our weapons, and reassert ourselves as human beings by putting an end to war.

–Camilo Mejia

Co-sponsored by Women Against War and Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace.

 

Our press release:

Camilo Mejia, First Iraq Veteran to Refuse to Fight the War in Iraq, Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, To Appear in Troy

TROY–Author, anti-war activist, prisoner of conscience and chairman of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Camilo Mejia will speak about his experiences and his book "Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejía" at The Sanctuary for Independent Media on Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 7 PM. Admission is by donation ($10 suggested, $5 student/low income). The Sanctuary for Independent Media is located at 3361 6th Avenue in north Troy (at 101st Street). Call (518) 272-2390, email info@MediaSanctuary.org, or visit www.MediaSanctuary.org for directions and more information.

Camilo Mejia joined the military at the age of nineteen, serving as an infantryman in the active-duty army for three years before transferring to the Florida National Guard. After fighting in Iraq, Mejia became the first known Iraq veteran to refuse to fight the war in Iraq, citing moral concerns about the war and occupation. He was eventually convicted of desertion by a military court and sentenced to a year in prison, prompting Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience.

Mejía is a former student of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, where he intended to major in psychology and Spanish on a military-funded scholarship. Mejía spent six months in Iraq (his first combat tour after enlisting), then returned for a 2-week furlough to the US after which he did not return for duty. He was charged with desertion and sentenced to one year in prison for refusing to return to fight in Iraq. In March 2004 he turned himself in to the US military and filed an application for conscientious objector status.

Mejía was court-martialed, and claimed that he left his post in order to avoid duties that could be considered war crimes: more specifically, the abuse and torture of prisoners. One of his attorneys, former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, claimed that he was thus protected from desertion charges by international law.

On May 21, 2004 Mejía was convicted of desertion by a military jury and sentenced to a year in jail and a bad conduct discharge. Under Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, conviction on the charge of desertion during time of war can result in a sentence of death.

Mejía served his time at the Fort Sill military prison in Lawton, Oklahoma. During his time in custody he was recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience and was awarded by Refuse and Resist with its Courageous Resister Award.

Camilo was also recognized by the Detroit City Council with a commendation for his stand. Detroit was the first city where Mejía spoke at an anti-war rally. While confined, local and national activists organized a series of vigils outside the gates of Ft. Sill, including one attended by Kathy Kelly and other members of Voices in the Wilderness.

Camilo Mejía was released from prison on February 15, 2005. Since his release, he has spoken at many peace protests and to the press about his experiences and his opposition to the war in Iraq.

Mejía has recently written a book entitled "Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejía" (Haymarket Books, 2008) which recounts his journey of conscience in Iraq:

"I say without any pride that I did my job as a soldier. I commanded an infantry squad in combat and we never failed to accomplish our mission. But those who called me a coward, without knowing it, are also right. I was a coward not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place. Refusing and resisting this war was my moral duty, a moral duty that called me to take a principled action. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier. All because I was afraid. I was terrified, I did not want to stand up to the government and the army, I was afraid of punishment and humiliation. I went to war because at the moment I was a coward, and for that I apologize to my soldiers for not being the type of leader I should have been."

In August 2007 Mejía was named the chair of the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

The event is co-sponsored by Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace and Women Against War, made possible by contributions from hundreds of patrons of The Sanctuary for Independent Media.

The Sanctuary for Independent Media is a community media arts and production center located in an historic former church in Troy, NY. The venue is an intimate and acoustically excellent space which seats about 150. The Sanctuary hosts screening, production and performance facilities, training in media production and a meeting space for artists, activists and independent media makers of all kinds.

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Hi res photo of Camilo Mejía:
www.MediaSanctuary.org/files/images/CAMcoverCROP3.tif

CBS News interview with Camilo Mejía:
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/03/29/60II/main609216.shtml

Democracy Now! interview with Camilo Mejía:
http://www.democracynow.org/2007/8/23/war_resister_camilo_mejia_elected_to