War Resister Camilo Mejia Elected to Chair Iraq Veterans Against the War, Group Encourages U.S. Troops to Refuse to Fight
War Resister Camilo Mejia Elected to Chair Iraq Veterans Against the War, Group Encourages U.S. Troops to Refuse to Fight
JUAN GONZALEZ: Members of one of the country's leading
Mejia is the first
AMY GOODMAN: In May 2004, a military jury convicted Camilo Mejia of desertion. He was sentenced to a year in prison, and he served nine months behind bars, prompting Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience.
Camilo Mejia has written a book about his experience. It's called The Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia. Camilo joins us today in our firehouse studio in
CAMILO MEJIA: Thank you, Amy and Juan.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk first about this decision of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group of, what, more than 500 people to actively encourage war resistance?
CAMILO MEJIA: Last count was 525 members, with new members joining every day, Amy. And the decision was made to, as an organization, support war resistance within the military as a way to undermine the war effort.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the growth of that resistance movement over the last couple of years -- obviously since you were one of the first -- how do you see that developing?
CAMILO MEJIA: I think we've come a long way from the time when I resisted the war. Like Amy said, I was the first public combat veteran to refuse to redeploy to
AMY GOODMAN: How many?
CAMILO MEJIA: Over 10,000 people. So that's the equivalent to an Army division.
AMY GOODMAN: The Pentagon is not talking about this.
CAMILO MEJIA: No, they're not talking about it, but USA Today reported last year, I believe, early last year, 8,000 people, and it's probably a lot more, when you talk to organizations like the GI Rights Hotline, who, you know, get a number of calls from people trying to find out information about discharges and about what happens once they go AWOL, what happens once they resist to go back to the war. And their numbers are, you know, an indication that the actual number is much higher.
Also, we have some new developments in the war. We had -- a long time ago, we all heard about the company of truck drivers who refused to go out on what they considered to be a suicide mission. We also have the case of a soldier called Eli Israel, who refused to go out on combat missions while being in
JUAN GONZALEZ: And one of the things, it seems to me, that has happened, talking to quite a few veterans who have returned maybe or on leave, that those who go AWOL, it's not as if the military publicizes it or actively goes after them, unless they become public, like in your case, right?
CAMILO MEJIA: Exactly, although that also has changed. We have cases of people who have not yet gone public and yet had been seized in their home. For instance, we have the case of Suzanne Swift, who was, you know, apprehended by police without even a search warrant at her mother's house, and she had not gone public at that time. And she had refused to go back to the war, because she had been subject to military sexual assault and command rape from her leadership and being forced to go back to the war with the same unit and with the same people who had attacked her.
So we have a movement that is not necessarily just politically against the war, but we have all kinds of reasons why the military is becoming increasingly disaffected with the government and with the mission in
JUAN GONZALEZ: There's also been a very sharp drop, reportedly, in the numbers of African Americans that are enlisting in the Army. Isn't there a -- I read a report recently, where there's been a sharp drop in the percentage of African Americans in the Army now.
CAMILO MEJIA: Right. I read the same report. Unfortunately, however, as the rates drop for African Americans, the rate for Hispanics is growing. And the military is aggressively targeting Hispanics to join the military. Some people may have heard about the DREAM Act, through which the military hopes to recruit undocumented youth who are graduating from high school. The proposal is to serve two years in the military or go to college for two years and then get your green card, which 65,000 people who are undocumented and graduate from high school and are not eligible for financial aid from the federal government are not going to be able to go to college for two years. So, you know, this is one of the ways in which, you know, the military is targeting young immigrants, mostly Latinos, to join the military. You know, it's -- again, it's a poverty -- it's an immigration draft that's going on. So while we see the numbers of African Americans dropped in terms of recruiting, the numbers of Hispanics is actually increasing.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Camilo Mejia, first soldier to refuse to return to fight in Iraq that we publicly know of, has written his own life story: The Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia. Camilo, this is a very moving, beautifully written book, and you begin with your parents in
CAMILO MEJIA: Well, I was born in '75 in
Later on, we moved to Costa Rica, where my mother continued doing her work running safe houses for the resistance and facilitating command meetings and training sessions, while my dad had to go into exile into Spain, because his music had turned too subversive for the regime to put up with, until the Sandinistas were able to overthrow the dictatorship, and we all went back to Nicaragua and stayed there for the entire period of the Sandinistas.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, when your father was -- in that period when he was still in
CAMILO MEJIA: Yes. It was a popular character called Corporito, and he used this character to basically poke fun at the regime, you know, and to point out things like the --
JUAN GONZALEZ: At the Samosa regime.
CAMILO MEJIA: At the Samosista regime. And to poke fun at, for instance, like the corruption, you know, how, you know, the upper classes was basically, you know, getting richer and richer, while the people of Nicaragua were suffering and not had enough food, you know, disaster relief that was going into the pockets of the dictator and those close to him, a number of things. And --
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was during the period of the great -- after the earthquake.
CAMILO MEJIA: After the earthquake, exactly.
JUAN GONZALEZ: In
CAMILO MEJIA: In
AMY GOODMAN: And your mother got involved with Daniel Ortega's younger brother named, well, Camilo, like you.
CAMILO MEJIA: Camilo, yes. And some people think that he's my dad, but he's not. I was born after they met. But, yes, he was killed in combat, unfortunately, a month before the triumph of the revolution. But, yes, we were involved with all of them, with Daniel, who's now president again, with Humberto, who was the general of the army, Camilo, and all of the leaders who were involved in the overthrowing of the regime and who later became commanders of the revolution were part of our daily life.
JUAN GONZALEZ: So how does a young man with this history of such radical parents, anti-imperialist parents, end up joining the National Guard in
CAMILO MEJIA: Well, actually, I first joined the active-duty army as an infantryman, and then I finished my -- well, I'm still in the military, but I meant to finish my contract with the National Guard. And what happened was basically that throughout the years that we lived in
And then there were changes once the Sandinistas lost the election, and we moved back to
So, in that sense, I was not very different from someone who joins the military after living here their entire life. The military seemed to hold the promise of a better future, you know, college education, financial stability, adventure, comradery, and so I joined the military after two semesters at a community college in Miami and after the federal government refused to renew my financial aid because they felt that I was making enough money -- a minimum-wage job -- to finance my own tuition.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about your time in
CAMILO MEJIA: My time in Iraq changed my position from being against the war politically and really being against the war in Iraq, exclusively, to having a more -- to having a broader antiwar stance and to have, you know, a more moral and more spiritually driven opposition to the war, because it was no longer something that I looked from afar, where I was saying to myself, "Well, we're going after Saddam Hussein for weapons of mass destruction." And here we have, you know, the UN inspectors saying, "No, we don't think that there are any weapons. We need more time." So all the political reasons that led to war basically did not make any sense to young Mejia when I deployed to
But once we got there, the first mission that we had was one in which we deprived prisoners of sleep. And we did that by using psychological torture techniques, such as, you know, creating loud noises to make the prisoners believe that they were being -- they were about to get killed by an explosion, keeping them deprived of light, destroying their sense of space, using handguns to -- you know, put them up to their heads to make them believe that they were about to be executed, and doing a number of things that just did not seem like the kind of thing that people join the military to do.
AMY GOODMAN: And who were these people?
CAMILO MEJIA: These people were just regular people. They were people who were caught with a weapon, perhaps because they were sheepherders and they need the weapon to protect their animals, or people who were caught with a wooden crate that at some point in history contained explosives, and that was enough to consider them to be enemy combatants. So the criteria behind, you know, detaining these people and labeling them "enemy combatants" was very loose, very arbitrary. And yet, we were there, you know, basically abusing these people.
And this was the first eye opener when I went to Iraq, that it's not just the political implications or like the political reasons behind the war or what led to the war, but also, you know, the human component, you know, how are we treating these people, how are we treating these human beings. But at the same time, in that environment that's very dangerous, that's not very welcoming for a soldier to basically analyze the war philosophically or morally, because you're being threatened every step of the way, and the number one thing that occupies your mind, at least in my case, was to get out of that place alive and to survive.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Once you were arrested and then sentenced, your time in military prison, could you talk about any reactions with the other soldiers there and what their response was to your opposition?
CAMILO MEJIA: Yes. Well, it's a very different pool of people when you look at military prison, because in the larger military, the active-duty military or the reserve component, we have this subculture of fear and complacency and blind obedience, where people basically believe that they have waived their rights to have their own opinion, to voice their concerns, to have a political mind. Individuality is highly discouraged by the military. So when people agree with you as you take your antiwar stance and go public with it, they don't necessarily dare to come forward and tell you, you know, "I support you."
I did have some people come up to me -- particularly after I appeared on 60 Minutes and lot of people recognized me on the base -- before my court-martial would come up to me and secretly support me. But once I went to jail, you have still a military population, but you have people who have been accused of something, tried by court-martial, sentenced and who are serving their time. So they feel like they have nothing to lose. They owe nothing left to the military, so they speak freely. And, by and large, everyone at the prison, you know, basically supported me. And being an AWOL and being a conscientious objector and being a public resister actually raised my ranking in the military hierarchy. You know, I was sort of like the equivalent to a bank robber in a civilian jail.
AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia, what about your unit in
CAMILO MEJIA: Well, I had members of my squad testified in the court-martial on my behalf, not necessarily taking a pro- or an antiwar stance, but basically saying that they believe that I was a person who acted upon principle, they believe that I was someone who really cared about human life, and things like that. So they were really supportive, in terms of my squad.
In terms of the larger unit, my platoon and my company, I have not really been in touch with many of them. And part of that is that a lot of my activism has not really taken place in
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the reaction of your parents and also back home in
CAMILO MEJIA: My parents supported me 100% in my refusal to go back to
The people in Nicaragua -- I suppose it was sort of redemption for the family name, because first you have like this son of revolutionaries, you know, joining the US military and going to war in Iraq, and so it's a big question mark for a lot of people, you know: how did this guy end up in the US military and in Iraq? And then, when I refused to go back and go public, and, you know, the news gets really huge, I think a lot of people really liked seeing that. And I had a lot of support on many different levels.
Even the Catholic Church supported me as a conscientious objector, at least until I went public and they knew that I was Carlos Mejia's son, because there had been some beef between my dad and the Catholic Church because of his work, the "Peasants' Mass," which is a very popular version of the musical stages of the Catholic Mass. So there had been some beef between my dad and the Catholic Church in
The human right groups in
AMY GOODMAN: Now you have become chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and you are launching the organization Truth in Recruiting campaign in September. Can you explain what that is?
CAMILO MEJIA: Sure. Well, we are launching a number of actions that we had, and Truth in Recruiting is one of them. What we're basically going to do is we are going to continue doing what we have been doing, but we're going to up the tempo. We are going to increase the number of members who are going to go into high schools to inform young people about the reality of the military and about the reality of war. Far from telling them not to join the military, we are going to tell them, "You want to join the military, this is what could happen to you. This is what's happened to our members. This is what the contract means. This is what stop-loss is. This is what conscientious objection is," so to basically inform them and thus empower them to make an informed decision.
We are going to go into recruiters' offices, and we're going to talk to the recruiters. And this, in time, is going to -- in turn, is going to take up their time, so they're not, you know, out there basically lying to young people about, you know, the many wonderful benefits of the military, without talking about the realities of war.
And we're going to continue doing, you know, what we're doing. We're going to continue going out into recruiting events. And we just had one action, actually, at the
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I'd like to ask you -- I mean, as someone who's somewhat familiar with what happened back during the Vietnam War period, I myself in 1972 was arrested by thirteen FBI agents for not participating or responding to my draft call when I was member of the Young Lords. But I remember back those days there was a huge coffeehouse movement outside of all the military bases by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and other groups, where they would have basically set up coffeehouses to try to get to reach the soldiers on the bases as they were coming back and forth from
CAMILO MEJIA: There has been. Actually, we're not too far into that effort. But there is already a coffeehouse, a GI coffeehouse, outside of
And actually, tonight I'm going to have a reading there at the Different Drummer CafÃ© at 6:30 p.m., and we're going to have a meeting with an active-duty chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which is also pretty significant, that we actually have active-duty chapters of this antiwar organization that we're organizing, that we're reaching out to active-duty personnel, and that we're having these kind of events outside of bases. But I think that the movement is still young in that aspect, but we are, you know, upping the effort, and we're working with members of the active-duty military.
AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Camilo's book is called Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia.