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April 2004 • Vol 4, No. 4 •

Miami Soldier Resists: ‘This War is Evil’

By Frank Davies

A Miami soldier who served six months in Iraq and then refused to return after a leave said Monday “I can no longer be an instrument of violence,” and turned himself in to military authorities. Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, a National Guard infantryman for five years after three years of active Army duty, explained his decision to seek conscientious objector status at an event organized by peace activists.

“I am not against the military. The military has been my family,” said Mejia, 28. “My commanders are not evil but this war is evil. I did not sign up for the military to go halfway around the world to be an instrument of oppression.” Then, joined by family, supporters and his lawyers, he walked to the gates of Hanscom Air Force Base outside Boston. Activists cheered him as heavily armed soldiers took Mejia inside.

Although he surrendered in Massachusetts, “the military honored my integrity,” Mejia said, allowing him to return to his unit. Mejia arrived at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport just after 10 p.m. Monday and was immediately surrounded by several reporters and photojournalists. Asked about his decision not to return to Iraq, Mejia responded “I don’t think we’re fighting terror in Iraq. I think we’re fighting for oil.”

Flanked by his mother and aunt, Mejia said he would turn himself in to his unit in North Miami, Charlie Company of the 124th Battalion, at 10 a.m. today. Monday night, his plans were simple: “I’m just going to take a hot shower, get some dinner.”

A spokesman for the Florida National Guard, Lt. Co. Ron Tittle, said late Monday no decision had been made yet whether to charge Mejia. “We’re glad he turned himself in,” Tittle said, adding that Army officials at Fort Stewart, Ga., and the Pentagon would decide how to handle the case.

Mejia, who grew up in Nicaragua, moved to Miami as a teenager with his mother, Maritza Castillo, and became a permanent resident. He was studying psychology at the University of Miami. Both parents strongly oppose the Iraq war. His father, Carlos Mejia Godoy, is a prominent songwriter, performer and activist in Managua. He was a cultural ambassador for the Sandinista government who denounced U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. “I did not want him to go to Iraq,” Castillo said. “But this is his decision today, his conscience.”

The soldier’s lawyers, Louis Font and Tod Ensign, said Mejia could be a “test case” of Iraqi war policy, because they know of no other resisters who served in Iraq, refused to return and then turned themselves in. Font will seek an administrative discharge for Mejia, based on his applying for conscientious objector status. Font said he was relieved the Army decided against pre-trial confinement for Mejia while officials study the case.

Mejia said his decision was “a very personal one,” after experiencing six months of guerrilla warfare in the Sunni triangle of Iraq, where resistance to U.S. occupation has been the most fierce. He recalled several ambushes in which other soldiers were wounded, the “bad guys” got away and “innocent Iraqis” were killed in crossfires. “At the time, you are doing your job and you go with the flow,” Mejia said. “But you see people dying every day. I can’t tell you there was one day I woke up and said I am against the war.” “I don’t think it is a moral war,” he added later.

During a two-week leave in October, Mejia decided not to return to Iraq. In the next few months he spent most of his time in New York, “living like a criminal,” wondering if military police would come for him.

Surrounded by peace activists, Mejia explained how he reached his decision after serving eight years in the military: “I signed up because I wanted to be part of this nation, and the military was at the very heart of the United States. I was very young (19), and was just starting to form my identity, values and principles.”

Mejia also criticized the Iraq invasion as “a war for oil, based on lies—lies about weapons of mass destruction, and connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.”

This week marks the first anniversary of the start of the war, and Mejia’s news conference was one of several events clearly designed for political impact. Mejia was joined by Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, who said the soldier’s “courageous stand” was in the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi.

A group called Military Families Speak Out, which opposes the war and claims 1,300 participants, helped organize the event and staged vigils Monday outside the White House and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where hundreds of those wounded in Iraq have been treated.

Herald staff writers Phil Long, Elaine de Valle and Hannah Sampson and researcher Elisabeth Donovan contributed to this report.

The Miami Herald, March 16, 2004





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