AWOL From Iraq
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Correspondent Dan Rather talks to one soldier, Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, who abandoned his unit in the middle of the war in one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq.
In his only on-camera interview while still in hiding, Mejia told 60 Minutes II that he went AWOL because he is morally opposed to a war that has killed or wounded nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers.
Rather also talks to Mejia's commanding officer and fellow National Guardsmen who are furious that they were deserted by a squad leader they now call a coward.
Mejia says he's been in hiding since mid-October of 2003.
"I've been very careful. I have not been home. I have not been using my Internet account," says Mejia. "I have not been using my cellular phone. So I've been really careful. I mean, I have not been with my family for a long time."
Mejia's decision to go AWOL did not sit well with Capt. Tad Warfel, who was Mejia's Florida National Guard commanding officer.
"His duty's not to question myself or anybody higher than me," says Warfel. "His duty is to carry out the orders that I give him or his platoon leader gives him. We're not paid in the military to form personal opinions or to doubt what our leaders say."
But Mejia says he did just that. He was a staff sergeant and squad leader, but he says he started to have doubts about what his unit was doing in Ramadi, a hot spot in the Sunni Triangle.
Mejia's family is Nicaraguan and he lives in Miami. But he is not an American citizen. Like approximately 40,000 soldiers in the armed forces, he is a legal, permanent U.S. resident. Last fall, Mejia was having difficulties with his legal status and was allowed to return to Miami for two weeks to work out the residency problem.
But then, he refused to return to Iraq. And he felt so strongly about his decision that he took the risky step of going public and talking to 60 Minutes II while still in hiding.
Why did he go AWOL?
"When you look at the war, and you look at the reasons that took us to war, and you don't find that any of the things that we were told that we're going to war for turned out to be true, when you don't find there are weapons of mass destruction, and when you don't find that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, and you see that you're not helping the people and the people don't want you there," says Mejia. "To me, there's no military contract and no military duty that's going to justify being a part of that war."
But Warfel could not disagree more, and believes Mejia deserted his men and his responsibilities in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.
"When we first landed in Baghdad, they said, 'Oh, you're going to Ramadi. That's the wild, wild West.' And when we got out there, certainly what it was. Very anti-American, anti-military," says Warfel.
Warfel and 27 of his 127 men were wounded. Some lost limbs and months later are still in the hospital. No one in the company died. Two went AWOL. One eventually returned to his unit and was disciplined. But Mejia remained absent without leave. He's been a fugitive for nearly five months.
Mejia says there's no doubt in his mind that he broke the law. However, he says he doesn't consider himself a criminal. "To break the law, the law has to be upheld," he says.
By that, Mejia says he means the war in Iraq should be considered illegal. He also says he signed a contract to serve eight years with the Army and the National Guard. And he served those eight years.
Then, he says, the Army did what it's done to thousands of soldiers, and ordered him to serve more time because of the war. While he was on leave in Florida, Mejia emailed Warfel in Iraq, asking to be released from active duty.
Warfel says he gave Mejia two weeks to go home. But he says he was furious when Mejia did not return: "He told me he was coming back and he didn't. And that makes me mad. And just that any soldier that abandons his fellow soldier in a time of war, and I can't think of anything worse."
"He pretty much said that my place of duty was there. And that I was to go back immediately," says Mejia. "He called me a coward."
"I don't know if I considered him personally a coward but I consider what he did as a cowardly act," says Warfel. He adds that in the beginning, he would have trusted Mejia with his life. But as time went on, Warfel says he started getting "some vibes back from his platoon and his squad that things weren't going right. I think, basically, he was just getting scared."
"You're on the road and a bomb goes off and you start taking fire from rooftops. It's just automatic, you don't even think about it. You just fire back. And you're afraid," says Mejia. "But you just have to respond. And I think that being courageous is not just about not being afraid. I think being courageous is about doing what you're supposed to do when you're afraid."
The Florida National Guardsmen who remained in Iraq after Mejia went AWOL finally came home this month. Their battalion's extended tour of duty was over.
Unlike Mejia, they had all served 13 long, dangerous months in Iraq. They had been shot at and ambushed. Sometimes, they were given less ammunition and fewer supplies than regular troops. They often weren't allowed to go home when their babies were born and relatives died. But now, they were back, and they did not have anything nice to say about their staff sergeant who went AWOL.
But Mejia says he has never regretted his decision to go AWOL, especially, he says, when he starts thinking about the 12 or 13 Iraqis he and his men killed in Ramadi. All of them, he says, were civilians simply caught in the crossfire -- except for one 10-year-old boy with an AK-47, and one adult with a grenade.
"Whether you want to admit it or not to yourself, this is a human being," says Mejia. "And I saw this man go down and I saw him being dragged through a pool of his own blood and that shocked me."
But isn't that the way of war?
"Yes, you're supposed to do that, yes, you're supposed to shoot at people. You know in your mind that if you go to a war, you are not going to be shooting at plastic targets," says Mejia. "Nothing that you do in training prepares you for a moment like that. Especially when it's the first time that it happens."
"And when you ask yourself, which you're bound to have, for what? Why? What did you answer?" Rather asks Mejia.
"That's the problem. I don't have an answer, I don't have a good answer. I cannot say I did it to help the Iraqi people. I cannot say that it was to make America and the world safer. I cannot say that it was for democracy," Mejia replies. "I cannot say that it was to prevent terrorism. I cannot find a single good reason for having been there and having shot at people and having been shot at."
To many Americans, those words dishonor soldiers who've lived and died in Iraq -- soldiers who Warfel says did their duty, and kept their discipline, without asking questions.
"It hurts me to see any soldier injured or certainly to see anybody killed, and I saw a lot of both. But I strongly believe that we're over there for a good reason," says Warfel. "And I believe in liberating the people of Iraq."
This month, Mejia surrendered in Massachusetts with the help of the Peace Abbey, an anti-war organization. They helped arrange his transfer back to military custody.
Mejia said he was hoping for an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector. But, Warfel points out, Mejia did not register his objections to the war or file any paperwork until after he went AWOL.
"Do you think there's a chance he will prevail with an argument of becoming a conscientious objector?" Rather asks Warfel.
"You know, in today's world, it could happen. Crazy things happen in today's world," Warfel answers. "I just hope that the military justice system does right by me and by my soldiers and punishes him for what he did."
What is the maximum punishment? "We'll, you know, actually, desertion during wartime can be punished by death," says Warfel.
The last time a deserter was executed was back in World War II, on the orders of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. That is very unlikely to happen to Sgt. Mejia, but he could go to prison.
"I definitely believe jail time is more than fair," says Warfel.
"I have not deserted the military. I have not been disloyal to the men and women of the military. I have not been disloyal to a country. I have only been loyal to my principles," says Mejia. "And I think that gives me the right to decide not to be a part of something that I consider criminal. I realize I have a duty to the military and I'm going to face that duty. And I'm going to face my responsibility."
Mejia hopes to become a citizen, and says that he loves his country. But if he claims to love his country so much, then why did he go AWOL? What would he say?
"I would say this war is not about America. This war is not about safety. This war is not about freedom. This war should not be paid with the blood of American soldiers," says Mejia. "And if I do end up paying with jail, then at least I'll know that it was for the right decision."
If Mejia doesn't go to jail, his commanding officer says there might be an even better alternative.
"The worst punishment in the world would be sending him back to Iraq for six more months, you know, the time he was AWOL, send him back to Iraq. That'd be great," says Warfel.
Late last week, the military announced that Mejia will face a special court martial. If convicted, he could receive a one-year prison sentence and a bad conduct discharge.
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