Camilo Mejia wanted to say “thank you.” Facing a packed coffee hour crowd in the basement of the Resource Center of the Americas last Saturday morning, Mejia recalled how the Center had helped him get through long, lonely months behind bars. “I’m especially happy to be here,” he said. “The Resource Center supported me when I was in prison. You were one of the groups that helped keep me in touch with reality. I feel like this is ‘pay back.’ ”
The Resource Center was one of several places Mejia visited during his weekend stop in the Twin Cities, part of a national speaking tour. Mejia was the first Iraq soldier to declare conscientious objector status, for which he spent nine months in jail. At each of his visits to faith communities, college campuses and the Resource Center, Camilo told his riveting personal story, beginning with growing up in an activist Latin American household and ending with his searing experiences in Iraq.
He explained that despite reservations about war he joined the army in hopes that it would help him finish college, only to be shipped to Iraq during the early days of the U.S. intervention. “Right away I thought that the war didn’t make sense,” he said. “There were no weapons of mass destruction, no links to 9/11. I had signed a contract with the military. I realized that I had signed my soul away. After that, my life didn’t belong to me. I had to obey orders and push my principles aside and go on.”
Mejia reluctantly continued to do his duty even as he witnessed the inhuman torture of detainees at a POW camp, fearing that if he spoke up he would be considered unpatriotic. “Then one day we were stationed near a mosque in the Sunni Triangle and deliberately starting firefights. We were supposed to be helping the Iraqi people but all we were doing was building bases. I saw this vehicle that had been riddled with bullets actually “lit up” with an aura around it and a man inside twitching from the bullets hitting him. Instinctively, robotically, I raised my rifle and fired at the vehicle. It was like we were a violent valet parking service.
“That began my transformation. I realized I had a higher purpose. I started thinking about war in a way that had nothing to do with politics. It was personal. I was not just against that war but against all war. It was getting so every time you went to the bathroom or left the base you were afraid of getting blown up. You become a killing machine. In order to survive you’ll shoot at anything.”
When Mejia went home on leave he found himself crying and thinking a lot. “I had the peace and clarity of mind without the pressure of the battle field. The more I thought about my military service the more I realized it was wrong. I began to think about not going back. It was most difficult decision I have ever made, a conflict between my antiwar feelings and the guilt of abandoning friends in the military and the commitment I had made. Finally, I decided not to go back, to declare myself a conscientious objector. I surrendered and went to trial.”
Mejia was convicted of being a deserter, sentenced to a year-long prison term, demoted from a sergeant to a private and deprived of some of his benefits. He credits the support he received from many peace and justice organizations with helping him survive his incarceration and being released three months early. Since then, he has joined Vets for Peace, has been speaking out against what he calls “a war for oil,” and military recruitment, and is writing a book about his experiences. Despite the hardships it has caused, he has no regrets about his decision to abandon the military. He also encourages others to stand up for what they believe in. As he said at the end of his RCA appearance, “people realize the power they have within them to make change.”