"I was a coward not for leaving the war but for being part of it in the first place." So concluded Sgt. Camilo Mejia as he left military prison on February 15, 2005. Camilo had been serving a one year prison term after being convicted of desertion last May 2004. Set free early for good behavior, he has been touring the U.S. and speaking at various anti-war rallies, such as the demo at Ft. Bragg, N.C., on March 19th.
"Many have called me a coward; others have called me a hero," he wrote recently, "but I believe I can be found somewhere in the middle. To those who've called me a hero I say that I don't believe in heroes, but I believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things."
Camilo is living once again in Miami where he plans to spend a lot of time with his young daughter. He also hopes to complete his final semester at the University of Miami, so that he can finally receive his bachelor's degree. He has paid a high price for his resistance; a Bad Conduct Discharge bars him from receiving any of the veteran's benefits he had earned during his eight years of military duty.
Citizen Soldier's cooperating attorney, Louis Font, of Brookline, MA is preparing to appeal Camilo's conviction on two different legal grounds. First, the appeal argues that the court martial judge erred when he refused to allow defense lawyers to offer evidence of international law violations which Mejia had a legal duty to refuse. During Camilo's five months of combat in Iraq, he personally observed such violations on a regular basis. Therefore, his expectation of illegal orders was based on his actual experience--not on speculation.
Font points out that while serving in Iraq in mid 2003, Mejia had been assigned to the Al Asad detention center where he witnessed Iraqi detainees being systematically tortured and abused by US troops under the direction of American civilian contract employees. According to the NY Times (March 26, 2005) the Army has decided, despite investigators' recommendations, not to prosecute anyone for the killing of an Iraqi lieutenant colonel who died from "blunt force injuries and asphyxia" at the Al Asad base in January 2004.
A second basis for reversal of Mejia's conviction is the trial judge's refusal to dismiss the prosecution because of an bilateral treaty between the U.S. and Costa Rican which bars either country from forcing the citizens of the other into "involuntary military service." Since Mejia is a citizen of Costa Rica, he could not be kept involuntarily on active duty past his April 2003 discharge date (the "stop loss program") under the terms of this treaty. International law expert, Prof Jules Lubel testified that GIs protected by these treaties have been set free by court rulings in the past.
Mejia's appeal will be filed within the next few months with oral argument expected in the Fall, 2005. For more info, contact; www.citizen-soldier.org (646) 590-3058