Absent from unit in Iraq for months, soldier turns protester and surrenders
By Pam Belluck, New York Times, March 16, 2004  

BOSTON, March 15 - For the last five months, Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia of the Army National Guard has done his very best to disappear.

He avoided his home and family in Miami, even his 3-year-old daughter, instead holing up with friends in Boston and New York City. He paid cash everywhere he went and traveled mostly by bus so as not to risk being stopped by a state trooper.

"I haven't been home and I haven't been driving my car," Sergeant Mejia said Monday. "It's been very difficult because you can't get on with your life."

Such was the world of Sergeant Mejia, 28, since October, when he was allowed home from Iraq on a two-week furlough seeking to be discharged and failed to report back to his unit.

On Monday, however, he turned himself in to the military authorities at Hanscom Air Force Base west of Boston and said he wanted to be considered a conscientious objector.

"I made the decision to disagree with this war," Sergeant Mejia said in an interview, asserting that his commanders had unnecessarily put soldiers in harm's way and that his commanders were too quick to take the lives of Iraqis. "I think this war is particularly immoral."

Sergeant Mejia is one of about 7,500 soldiers who fail to return to their units each year from a force of 1.4 million, including Guard units, Defense Department statistics show. In the Army, only a handful of soldiers have sought conscientious objector status. Last year, 31 of 60 applications were approved, Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman, said. So far this year, 2 of 5 applications have been approved.

Sergeant Mejia took the unusual step of making his surrender public. He spoke at a news conference on Monday morning and arrived at the Air Force base with cheering peace activists. Officials at Hanscom ordered him to take the next flight to Miami. He was to report to his Guard unit to await a decision about whether his application would be granted or whether he would face military charges, said his lawyer, Louis Font, and a spokesman for the Florida National Guard, Lt. Col. Ron Tittle.

Mr. Font said Sergeant Mejia would comply. His unit, the First Battalion, 124th Infantry, returned from Iraq this month, suggesting that Sergeant Mejia was unlikely to be sent back to Iraq, Colonel Tittle said.

A native of Nicaragua, Sergeant Mejia is the son of a well-known singer in Managua, Carlos Mejia Godoy, who became a kind of cultural apostle of the Sandinista revolution, which engendered anti-American feeling. As a teenager, Sergeant Mejia moved to the United States with his mother, Maritza Castillo, a naturalized American citizen. Sergeant Mejia is a permanent resident.

He enlisted in the Army at 19 because he wanted to "identify with the culture and the people" of his new country. Three years later, he signed up for a five-year stint with the National Guard. He was studying at the University of Miami and about to graduate when his unit was called to Iraq in April.

In Iraq, where he was a squad leader, he became increasingly disillusioned, he said. At first it was the sense that his unit was not given adequate supplies. Then, Sergeant Mejia said, he started to question tactical maneuvers out of concern that his commanders were intentionally courting combat so that they could be awarded medals.

"They were trying to draw the enemy onto us for medals and Purple Hearts," he said.

According to his conscientious objector application, Sergeant Mejia was particularly upset when a young Iraqi boy was shot and, because of confusion at the medical unit, died. Sergeant Mejia was also angered when his unit was reprimanded for celebrating their escape from an ambush; he said his commander told them their job was to kill the enemy, not run away.

"When you join, you have no idea what war is like," Sergeant Mejia said. "The people who are paying for it with their blood are in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Colonel Tittle, the Florida National Guard spokesman, said of the unit, "Their job was to engage the enemy." He added, "You want to get them out there and engage with them on your terms rather than wait for them to do it on their terms."

He said Sergeant Mejia's commander, Capt. Tad Warfel, had heard complaints from other soldiers "about Sergeant Mejia not taking responsibility as a squad leader and they were concerned about their squad not getting the right leadership."

Sergeant Mejia was granted furlough to pursue his contention that noncitizens were to be discharged after eight years of service. But once home, he said, the military rebuffed his claim and he contacted Citizen Soldier, a peace advocacy group.

Colonel Tittle said that in wartime, eight-year contracts like Sergeant Mejia's are automatically extended. He said that when Sergeant Mejia went home, Captain Warfel had "had a gut feeling" that he would not come back.

Katie Zezima contributed reporting for this article.


refusing to kill