MARIA HINOJOSA: Hi, everyone. This week we're speaking with Camilo Mejía who was the first active duty soldier to publicly denounce the war in Iraq back in 2004 after five months of fighting in Iraq and after serving more than eight years in the military. Mejía also became the first soldier to publicly speak about going AWOL in order to escape continuing his tour of duty in Iraq. Mejía then turned himself in to the military after five months of being absent without leave. And he served nine months is a military prison as a result. Camilo Mejía, now out of prison, has written about his experience in his new memoir, "Road From Ar Ramadi." Welcome to Now on the News, Camilo.
CAMILO MEJÍA (CM): Thank you, Maria.
HINOJOSA: One of the first questions that many people may have is how is it possible that you can be a deserter when you voluntarily signed up for the military?
CM: When you join the military, you think that you're going to do it to protect freedom to fight for democracy. And finding yourself in a war that's not legitimate by international law standards, where you're abusing prisoners in a war that's being fought in the streets, and you see that the bulk of the human loss, it's civilian, it's very difficult to conciliate your participation in that war and what you're doing in that war with the reasons that led you to—to sign a military contract.
HINOJOSA: But if all soldiers basically said, "Look, oh my gosh, civilians are getting killed in the crossfire." And if all of the soldiers who felt uncomfortable with that said, "I can't do this any longer," well, what would happen to the army?
CM: The vast majority of the people—I mean, I'm talking about 30 out of 33 people that my unit alone killed are civilians. You know, you're not talking here about fire fights between the resistance fighters and the U.S. soldiers where one or two civilians get killed. And you can't say that because you signed up a military contract or but—that because war is ugly, you have basically a green light to commit all kinds of crimes. You know, I mean, the same thing could have been said by—Nazi soldiers when they killed six million Jews during World War II, that they too were following orders.
HINOJOSA: Take us back to the—the time when you were serving in Ar Ramadi and when suddenly for you the reality of being a soldier in this war conflicted with who you believed you had become?
CM: We responded to a protest that was being held outside of a—a government building in Ar Ramadi. And we opened fire on a young man who threw a grenade at the compound that we were in. And this was the first time that I actually opened fire on a moving, breathing human being, and that as a result of that lost his life.
I—I had been in the military over eight years. I was an infantry squad leader in war. And I can't say that all the training that I received in the military ever prepared me for that—for that crucial time in my life. When you return home, and you bring those memories, and—and you know that you've done these things, at least for myself it was really hard to conciliate that with the—the person that—that I was or at least that I was trying to be. It—it became just really hard to accept any justification for the—destruction of human life in war.
HINOJOSA: You have been called a coward. Mike Naugle, a National Guard Sergeant who supervised you in Iraq, said, "He's a momma's boy. No one wants to die. But he took advantage of his unit and abandoned them in the end." There will be people who say, "Camilo Mejía was just soft, couldn't handle it." And you say?
CM: I think I helped a lot of people in the military realize that there comes a point where regardless of what other people may say or think about you, regardless of the consequences, regardless of—of jail and being called a coward and traitor, we have to follow what our conscience tells us to do.
HINOJOSA: In your book, you write about the fact that you do consider yourself something of a coward. In what circumstance do you believe you were acting cowardly?
CM: From the very beginning, I did not believe that we had a right to invade Iraq. And yet I allowed myself to be deployed because I was very afraid for my safety because I did not want to end up in a military jail. And also because while I was in Iraq, we killed civilians and we were put in situations where we knew that our actions would lead to a high number of civilian casualties. And I did pretty much nothing.
HINOJOSA: Page 224 of your book, Road From Ar Ramadi, and it says here, "The first interview I gave was to a CNN reporter. Considerable care was taken to protect my identity. And I used the pseudo name Carlos telling the interviewer simply that I was an Iraq vet, 28 years of age, unmarried with one child, an infantry man who had gone underground because of opposition to the war."
That CNN reporter who interviewed you was me. When we did that interview when you were "living underground", when you had just gone AWOL, you talked about torture in military prisons. What did you see, in fact, Camilo Mejía?
CM: We're tasked with—with keeping prisoners on sleep deprivation for up to three or four days. And we did that by basically—terrorizing these people, by—by treating them and keeping them in subhuman conditions. We kept them hooded. We kept them tied. And we created loud sounds by—hitting the wall next to them with—huge sledge hammers to scare them into thinking that they were about to be killed by an explosions.
And we put guns to their heads and charged them to make them believe that they were about to be executed in order to "soften them up" for interrogation. And after talking to—people who are experts in military law and international law, that this actually constitute war crimes. You know, that these actions that we took constitute—torture against a human being.
HINOJOSA: Who—who was telling you? Who was teaching you how to—as the term you use "soften up" these prisoners?
CM: This type of operative is known as a spook in the military which is basically someone who has top security clearance and is highly trained in—in several areas, like, for instance, interrogations. Who are completely untraceable because they don't go by their first or last names. They don't wear nametags.
And who basically lay down the—the procedures, you know, by which—prisoners are going to be treated. So we receive the training from other soldiers who are operating in that facility. But the actual training did not come from those soldiers who were—were not even trained in—jail procedures.
You know, they were not military police. They were not military intelligence. They were just regular field soldiers. Not only am I saying here that the abuse started from the—from the moment we arrived in Iraq as a military, perhaps even before, but also that it was systemic, and that it comes all the way from the top.
HINOJOSA: You said to me, "We're being used as pawns so that our higher ups can receive medals of honor and awards for the service that we're doing. But we are basically sitting ducks." What do you mean by that?
CM: We have this award in the infantry called The Combat Infantry Badge which is an award that you only get after you've engaged the enemy in—in the battlefield. And we were promised by our commanders before deploying to Iraq that we would not return to the United States without these awards. So when I find myself in Iraq with—with—with my unit, and I see that a lot of the things that we're doing make absolutely no sense in terms of infantry procedures, for instance, following the same route over and over. You know, doing the same mission over and over at the same time, leaving from the same place.
HINOJOSA: Essentially, if you're the enemy and you're seeing that your enemy is leaving from the same place and doing the same movement every single day, it means that they're gonna be able to target you.
CM: Exactly, you're—you're pretty much giving them everything they need to carry out a deliberate attack. And that doesn't make sense from an infantry perspective, but it does make sense when you have commanders yelling orders from behind radios, miles away from the action, who are desperate to get these awards. You know, and the people who basically—pay for—for—for these awards are the soldiers and the civilians.
HINOJOSA: But as a soldier, I mean, isn't the basic—one of the basic tenants that you're taught is you sign on that dotted line understanding you will follow command orders as given? You knew that you had to follow orders.
CM: Yes Maria, but there are limits to that. You are not supposed to follow an illegal order. And—and it's not only that you're not supposed to do it, you have a duty to disobey a l—an order that you know is unlawful.
HINOJOSA: While you were serving in prison, Amnesty International declared you an American prisoner of conscience. When you step back now, where—where do you see your place now in the year 2007 in these United States?
CM: I see myself as part of a movement. And the number of people—deserting the military when I returned from Iraq was 22. And I believe the number is up to nine—9,000 or more soldiers who have deserted or gone AWOL since the beginning of the Iraq war. And I see a l—long way ahead of us. I see a long struggle. And I see myself as a part of that struggle.
HINOJOSA: Camilo Mejía, thank you so much for speaking to us on NOW on the News.
CM: Thank you, Maria.
HINOJOSA: To read an excerpt from Camilo Mejía's book, "Road From Ar Ramadi," visit our website at www.PBS.org/NOW. You can also send your comments about our talk with Camilo Mejía to www.PBS.org/NOW. We want to know what's on your mind. Our program was produced by Karin Kamp. Until next time, I'm Maria Hinojosa. Thanks very much for joining us on NOW on the News.