August 05, 2009
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
Camilo Mejia, the first soldier to refuse to return to fight in Iraq
and the chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War. His memoir is called
The Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Camilo Mejia.
Anjana Samant, Staff Attorney at Center for Constitutional Rights.
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 basicallyyou 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 courtfive panel judgesin
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
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
inwell, 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 everyjust
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 wentI 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 nowcan 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 messagethe same question I asked Victorto 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
cannotI 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'tyou 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 veryhas 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 filedthe appealtoday 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