|English | Español||August 15, 2018 | Issue #37|
Camilo Mejia’s Long Journey of Conscience From Nicaragua, to Iraq, to Military Prison
An Interview with a Sandinista Son and Iraq War Veteran
By Ron Smith
Photo: Ron Smith D.R. 2005
Since his release from prison, Camilo has been catapulted to the forefront of the antiwar movement. He has appeared several times on Democracy Now!, and is a prominent participant in many rallies against the war. What drew us particularly to Camilo was the sense of bewilderment we felt as to how the son of two Sandinistas could get himself involved with the illegal invasion of Iraq. This involvement, obviously, requires participation in, to quote Ché Guevara, “…el gran enemigo de la humanidad, los Estados Unidos de Norteamérica…” We understood that there was something not being discussed by the numerous interviews and reports on Mr. Mejia, and we were determined to understand the transition from Sandinista baby to member of an occupying force, and his subsequent transformation into a voice of the U.S. resistance to the war. Camilo took time away from a gathering of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, or IVAW, to allow us to interview him in an empty room at the Clarion Hotel in Fayetteville, NC.
Fayetteville underscored that there was a difference between being anti-war and anti-imperialist, a problem that the left has grappled with for years (see my article on Apocalypse Now and Abu Ghraib, activ8media.org). The many flaws in the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq have caused a great number of people espousing otherwise racist or reactionary ideas to oppose this particular war. Gaining a deeper understanding of the causes of war and the motivations of the United States is essential to the creation of an informed anti-war movement. Failing to acknowledge the imperialist nature of this country, and the racist idealogy that fuels wars of imperial conquest, doom us to learning the same painful lessons in an infinite loop. Camilo alludes to the fact that it is the same spirit of imperialism that motivated the United States involvement in Central America, and in its current occupation of Iraq and the ongoing US interventions in the Andes.
Camilo provided a refreshing departure from the “liberal” anti-war position. When we approached him for the interview, we noticed that he was wearing a black Oscar Romero T-shirt. This set both my partner and I at ease, as we realized that this was someone who saw himself as part of the popular struggle.
Camilo Mejia: My name is Camilo Mejia. I was a staff sergeant in the Florida National Guard. I deployed to Iraq early in 2003, and I participated in the war. I came back on a two-week leave, and I decided that I could no longer be part of the war in good conscience, so I decided not to return to the war, and I applied for Conscientious Objector status, which has initially been denied…
I was also tried by courts-martial, found guilty of desertion, and served close to nine months in confinement in a military prison, for refusing to go back to the war in Iraq.
I recently got out, just a little bit over a month ago… I am against the war, and I am here lending my voice to the movement for peace and justice.
Camilo speaks with a soft voice, he considers his answers carefully. What was most interesting to us was how he came to be in the military in first place.
Camilo Mejia: I have a long history with the military, I first joined after college, I graduated High School, and went to college for a couple of semesters.
I dropped out, went inside of the military, because I didn’t feel that I was ready for college, and because I wanted some level of independence from home. I come from a very political family in Nicaragua. My father was a Sandinista singer; he was the official singer for the Sandinista Revolution for a while. And my mother was also involved in politics, and I guess I wanted to escape all of that.
I wanted to find my own way, do my own things, and I found the military. I guess it’s a combination of things. I wanted independence. It was a form of rebellion also, to do that which everyone expected me not to do.
I wasn’t ready for college, and the army seemed like a good option, to go out and… [He shakes his head.] I guess, grow up – which is not really the case, but to see the world and come back and maybe be ready for college. And they help you with tuition and things like that. So I went in the military, this was back in 1995.
Well, from 1995 to 1998, it was pretty usual; you know, I was an infantryman in a mechanized unit. I made many friends; I stayed pretty much the whole time in Texas. And I got out, you know, not much to say about that. I went back to college. I joined the National Guard. Every military contract lasts 8 years, so when I got out after my active duty enlistment, I still had about four and a half years left on my contract, so I figured, I’ll do my time, wearing my uniform once a month, while going to college and getting an education; maybe I’ll go back into military active duty as a psychologist. My plan was to be a psychologist. Just about a semester before I was supposed to graduate, and just a couple of months before the end of my eight-year contract, my unit was activated to go to Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Photo: Ron Smith D.R. 2005
But after we deployed, once we went into Iraq, and we started getting into firefights, and we started getting ambushed, and attacked with RPG’s and mortars and IED’s [improvised explosive devices] on the road, and we started actually seeing the real face of war, you know, people dying, a place being occupied, and you know, the raids and everything…
[Here, Camilo stares into the distance; he is clearly haunted by what he was forced to do in Iraq…]
The questioning of the war pretty much stopped, because we were being attacked pretty much every day, and it’s really hard to do any real moral questioning of any war when you’re in it. Because your life is in danger every second, and you’re afraid, you’re frustrated, and you respond to your fears and you respond to your frustrations. And you basically want your men to get out of there alive, as a Squad Leader, and you want to get yourself out of there alive, back to your family, so you don’t really question the war, you don’t really question your role in the war. You just go along with it, you know, and you pretty much just do what you’re supposed to do, whether you agree with it or not.
And then I was given a two-week leave, and coming home gave me the peace of mind and the clarity to come face to face with my feelings about the war and everything that we did. You know, people want to know, were you ambushed? Were you in a firefight? Did you kill people? Did you see people die? And for the first time you start talking about these things and reliving these experiences away from the danger, and you begin to ask yourself questions about the validity of the reasons given for the war, you try to find yourself justifications, for doing everything that you did, and you know, being a part of a war.
In the end you find that it’s… it’s an imperialist war, and it’s a war for corporate profit, and you know, not a single person should die for that. So in good conscience, I could not go back. I could not be a part of it. So I decided not to go back.
I tried to make my case legally through the proper legal channels in the military. Things didn’t work out, so I sought civilian counsel and went underground and wrote my Conscientious Objector application. I resurfaced again in March of last year, and publicly expressed my opposition against the war, on moral, religious, spiritual, ethical, and political grounds. I said that this is a war for oil, and that I’m not a mercenary, and that I wasn’t going to participate in the war, and I proceeded to surrender myself to the military right after that. I was tried within 2 months, and found guilty of desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty. I was given a sentence of twelve months of [solitary] confinement, reduction from the grade of E6 to E1, forfeiture of two thirds of my pay, and a bad conduct discharge.
I served my time at the Fort Sill, Oklahoma confinement facility, did about eight months and three weeks, got out early on good conduct time and work abatement. I’ve been out for a little over a month; I’m back and I’m here to say that I continue to disagree with not only this war but every war, and I continue to say that this is a war for oil and for imperialist domination, and that I continue to lend my voice and to speak out to say that we should not be there.
You go in there and you get in one firefight, and you see at the end of the firefight that most of the insurgents got away, if not all of them, most of the soldiers survived, if not all of them, and you look at the middle ground, and you see a bunch of dead civilians – you know, children included, women, elderly, you name it. And this is not just an isolated event, you know, this is a pattern. It doesn’t happen because soldiers are bad people, it doesn’t happen because insurgents want to kill their own citizens, it happens because that is the nature of war. You don’t have to be there very long; you don’t have to be very smart. It’s there; it stares at you while you’re there. It is that experience precisely that makes me against every war, being there and seeing it and staring at it in the face.
And you can have a moral opposition to it, and none of it matters, because you’re a soldier and you have a duty. Because you’re told to kill, you kill, and because you’re told to raid, you raid. You’re told to set up an ambush and you set up an ambush, you’re told to set up a roadblock, you set up a roadblock, and feelings and emotions and moral principles play no role in this.
You see it in the news, you know – every time a soldier dies, we know about it. But what about civilians? It’s a ratio of about ten to one, if not more. [The latest statistics suggest a ratio closer to one hundred to one.]
Cindy Sousa: What about your experience as a Nicaraguan-American, did that influence your opinion?
Camilo Mejia: To some extent I guess it does, not just because of being a Nicaraguan, but having my parents be involved in the Sandinista revolution, and how the Reagan administration intervened in the civil war that took place in Nicaragua, and funded the contras. It was a mercenary war that choked the economy, and you know, it was a pretty fair society. It was a society and a form of government with no official affiliation to anyone. I went to a private Catholic school when I was there, so you can’t say it was a communist country. There was private enterprise, so you cannot really say that Nicaragua was communist, or even socialist. You know, it was just a country; it was just a form of government that was trying to make a fair society for everyone.
I remember that they were giving vaccines to all the children. They were teaching everyone how to read and write. Everyone was picking up the coffee beans, and it was a dream, it was a dream society for a while. It’s not a very good example if you are the sole superpower in the world, and the only way to feed your needs is through oppression. And so you instill instability and you encourage and fund mercenary wars – and you know, I lived there. I was somewhat removed from that reality because I was very privileged. But it stuck to me; it stayed with me somewhere, in the back of my mind, you know, in my memory somehow.
That sense of injustice resurfaced in Iraq not while being oppressed, but while being an instrument of oppression. It came back from somewhere in my conscience, in my memory, in my life history, and just completely took over, so here I am.
Camilo spoke to us at length about his suggestions for youth considering the military. Camilo’s interview has been included in the upcoming counter-recruitment video project from activ8media, “Army of None: What Military Recruiters Aren’t Telling You.” You can get more information about this project at activ8media.org. As for us, we were more than satisfied with Camilo’s answers to our burning questions.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism