As the year 2003 began, Camilo Mejia was looking forward to getting out of the Florida National Guard after completing eight years of service. However, things changed when his unit was told it was being activated in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He would no longer be discharged in May but was involuntarily extended as a result of the stop-loss policy. Meanwhile, the Campus Antiwar Network was formed Jan. 17, 2003 by students from more than 70 universities in direct opposition to the pending war in Iraq.
As soon as his plane arrived in Jordan and throughout the rest of his deployment, Mr. Mejia noted a racist attitude among his fellow military members concerning cultural differences. Being opposed to the invasion, Mr. Mejia took solace in seeing demonstrations against the pending war from around the world while watching news reports in Jordan. Unable to openly express his concern about the upcoming occupation, Mr. Mejia instead tried to comfort himself saying that as a soldier, it wasn't up to him to judge the reasons given for war. Afraid that he may not make it home to his daughter, Mr. Mejia wrote "GIVE PEACE A CHANCE" on a piece of paper and had his friend on guard duty take a photo as evidence for her to see he was against what he was about to participate in.
One day while pulling guard duty at a propane station close to the edge of his base, he was confronted by his conscience while talking with the station's manager. His friend asked him how he could be bringing freedom to the Iraqi people when he had no freedom himself as his enlistment was supposed to be over and he did not agree with the occupation of Iraq. Mr. Mejia had no answer.
In September 2003, Mr. Mejia wrote a letter to his chain of command requesting to be allowed to go home since his eight-year commitment to the military was completed and as a non-citizen, this was the maximum allowed time of service. His chain of command wanted him to complete this business after the deployment ended, and his pleas fell on deaf ears. Toward the end of the month, his unit was given twenty slots for rest and relaxation, and he was chosen to be with the first group going home.
During his leave, Mr. Mejia worked on getting his discharge but made little progress. Toward the end of this time, he called the GI Rights Hotline to get some advice. It suggested he look into the Conscientious Objector process based on his feelings and experiences about his time in Iraq. Mr. Mejia made the choice to not get on his flight back to Iraq and stayed hidden until March 2004, before turning himself in as the first military member to refuse re-deployment to Iraq with his completed CO package. This package was ignored during his time in court, and he was sentenced to one year for desertion. He was released in February 2005 for good conduct during his imprisonment.
While Mr. Mejia was in jail, eight Iraq veterans formed Iraq Veterans Against the War in August 2004. Mr. Mejia was elected to become the chair of the board at IVAW's annual convention this past August. This weekend, CAN will be having its national conference, and Mr. Mejia will be the headlining speaker. Everyone is invited to hear him talk about his experiences in Iraq and about being a member of both IVAW and CAN this Saturday at 8 p.m. in 3650 Humanities.
Todd Dennis, a U.S. Navy Submarine Service Veteran, is the Wisconsin state coordinator of Iraq Veterans Against the War, the secretary and a co-founder of the Madison Chapter of IVAW and a member of the Campus Antiwar Network UW-Madison.