During a two-week furlough home from duty in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia decided he could not go back. He was the first soldier to publicly refuse to return after serving in the Iraq war and to denounce the war as illegal and immoral. He turned himself into the military police and applied for Conscientious Objector status, but the U.S. military convicted him of desertion and sentenced him to one year in prison at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He was released on February 15, 2005. Since then he has traveled around the country speaking out against the war and the occupation.
Though he served in the military for eight years, he has been called a coward; the specific charge levied against him was “desertion with the intent to avoid hazardous duty.” In a statement from prison, he wrote, “I was a coward not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier. All because I was afraid. I was terrified, I did not want to stand up to the government and the Army, I was afraid of punishment and humiliation. I went to war because at the moment I was a coward, and for that I apologize to my soldiers for not being the type of leader I should have been.”
A citizen of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Mejia moved with his family to the United States in 1994. At the age of 19, he joined the military based on recruiters’ promises of a free education. Nevertheless, when he resumed his studies in 1998 while serving as a reservist in the Florida National Guard, he had to work as a security guard in order to pay for school. He was a semester away from earning a B.A. in psychology when he was recalled to active duty in December 2002.
When The Indypendent asked him if what had happened to him had changed how he felt about the United States, and whether he ever considered going back to Costa Rica or Nicaragua, he said that he doesn’t “buy into the whole nationality thing.” Rather, he identifies with the idea of being a “citizen without borders.” Nationality doesn’t “determine where your heart is,” he argues. Regarding patriotism, he says, “I love this country very much, but the word ‘patriotism’ has been so corrupted lately.”
He questions whether love of country is enough. “What happens here impacts the rest of the world. Justice starts at home. We have to stand for freedom and our civil rights here. It’s all interrelated – women’s rights, the right to education, a decent job, a good home. People fail to see those relationships. I don’t feel that being a patriot is enough, because what happens here affects everybody.”
When talking to other veterans of the Iraq war, he says they often express frustration and disagreement with the war, but that they also confess to having been afraid to leave their comrades. “Everybody is fighting for everyone else. At the end of the day, nobody has any real reasons for why we’re there.”