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The Price Of Desertion

A Follow-up Report On A Sergeant Who Went AWOL

An Army soldier accused of deserting his unit in Iraq went on trial late last month.

Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia was court-martialed on charges he abandoned his unit in the middle of the war in one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq.

CBS News Correspondent Dan Rather of 60 Minutes II first met Mejia earlier this year when he was still AWOL -- absent without official leave.

He went AWOL, he told 60 Minutes II, because he was morally opposed to a war that has killed or wounded nearly 5,000 United States soldiers.

Mejia's commanding officer and fellow National Guardsmen told us a different story: that he went AWOL because he's a coward.

Here is the story of how a military tribunal dealt with Mejia after his decision, as he told us in March, to go AWOL.

Mejia had been AWOL since October 2003. "I've been very careful," he said. "I have not been home. I have not been using my Internet account. 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, his Florida National Guard commanding officer.

"His duty's not to question myself or anybody higher than me," said 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 Camilo 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 hotspot in the so-called Sunni Triangle.

Mejia's family is Nicaraguan and he lives in Miami. But he is not an American citizen. Like some 40,000 members of 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. 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.

Here is what he said when he was asked why this soldier went AWOL:

"This soldier went AWOL because this soldier does not think that this is a good war. ...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 ... to me, there's no military contract and no military duty that's going to justify being a part of that war."

Warfel could not disagree more and believes the sergeant deserted his men and his responsibilities in one of the most violent parts of Iraq. He says, "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."

Dan Rather: "Captain, I know enough about soldiers to know that no soldier likes to talk about fear, but did you and your men fear death?"

Warfel: "Yes."

Dan Rather: "Will you ever be the same again?"

Warfel: "No."

Dan Rather: "Will anybody who served under you be the same again?"

Warfel: "No."

Warfel and 27 of his 127 men were wounded, some seriously, losing limbs and spending months 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 official leave.

Dan Rather: "You've been a fugitive."

Mejia: "Yes…"

Dan Rather: "Because you broke American military law."

Mejia: "Yes."

Dan Rather: "There's no doubt that in your mind that you broke the law?"

Mejia: "Right."

Dan Rather: "You're a criminal, correct?"

Mejia: "I don't consider myself a criminal."

Dan Rather: "Well, by dictionary definition, if you break the law, that's a crime. Those who commit crimes are criminals, correct?"

Mejia: "Well, I sort of disagree because for you to break the law, the law has to be upheld."

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 e-mailed Capt. Warfel in Iraq, asking to be released from active duty.

The e-mail infuriated Warfel: "One, because 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."

Warfel says he felt betrayed, on a personal level. And Mejia says Warfel "pretty much said that my place of duty was there and that I was to go back immediately. He called me a coward."

Coward. An emotionally charged word. So Rather asked Mejia, "Are you a coward?" And Mejia replied, "No, I'm not."

At the beginning, Warfel says, he would have trusted Mejia with his life. But, as time wore on, that changed, he explains, because, "I started getting some vibes back from his platoon and his squad, you know, that things weren't going right. I think, basically, you know, he was just getting scared."

As for Mejia, he says, "You know, 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. 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 Sgt. Mejia went AWOL finally came home last March. 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. They sometimes 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.

Said one: "He was given a position of great responsibility, taking care of eight soldiers and their livelihood, and he let them down, basically."

And another: "He was a staff sergeant, and I'm from the old school, where you lead from the front. If you tell your men to do something, you'd better be ready to do it, too. And that kind of action out of a senior NCO is totally unacceptable."

And still another: "What he did, what he did by leaving us over there was, well, is disgraceful as a soldier."

But Camilo 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 crossfire, except for one 10-year-old boy with an AK-47 and one adult with a grenade.

Dan Rather: "Were you upset that you fired at him?"

Mejia: "Yes, I was upset."

Dan Rather: "Why? He was throwing a hand grenade at you and your men."

Mejia: "You know, whether you want to admit it or not to yourself, this is a human being... And I saw this man go down, and I saw him being dragged through a pool of his own blood and that shocked me."

Dan Rather: "But you are, you were a soldier."

Mejia: "Yes."

Dan Rather: "You know, war is hell, and you get there, and it's worse than you ever think it is. ...Yes, he died, yes, there was blood, yes it's terrible. But isn't that or is it the way of war?"

Mejia: "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. ...Nothing that you do in training prepares you for a moment like that, especially when it's the first time that it happens."

Dan Rather: "And when you ask yourself, which you're bound to have, 'For what? Why?' What did you answer?"

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. 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, Capt. Warfel says, did their duty, kept their discipline, without asking questions.

Dan Rather: "You've been there, you fought the war. Are those deaths and injuries justified?"

Warfel: "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 ... and I believe in liberating the people of Iraq."

Shortly after 60 Minutes II first met Camilo Mejia, he surrendered with the help of the Peace Abbey, an anti-war organization. They helped arrange his transfer back to military custody.

Mejia was hoping to be honorably discharged as a conscientious objector. But, his captain points out, Mejia did not register his objections to the war or file any paperwork until after he went AWOL.

"I just hope that the military justice system does right by me and by my soldiers and punishes him for what he did," said Warfel.

The maximum punishment for desertion during wartime is death. But the last time a deserter was executed was way back in World War II, on the orders of General Dwight Eisenhower. But, Warfel told 60 Minutes II, Mejia should be punished severely.

"I believe jail time is more than fair," he said. But, even, better, he adds: "You know, 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."

Dan Rather: "You know you're going to face some harsh punishment."

Mejia: "I know that's a possibility."

Dan Rather: "I think any number of people watching, listening to this, who disagree with the war, perhaps vehemently disagree with the war, are going to disagree with you on this point, which is, if you're in uniform, if you're in the Army, it's your duty to follow the orders until and unless you think the order is outside regulations."

Mejia: "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. 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."

Dan Rather: "Do you hope to become a citizen now?"

Mejia: "Yes, I do."

Dan Rather: "Do you love this country?"

Mejia: "I do."

Dan Rather: "To someone who's looking in and saying, 'Well, he can't love it very much or he wouldn't go on AWOL,' you say what?"

Mejia: "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. ...And if I do end up paying with jail, then at least I'll know that it was for the right decision."

After deliberating for just two hours, a military jury convicted Camilo Mejia of desertion. He was sentenced to a year in jail, given a bad conduct discharge and stripped of his rank as staff sergeant.

Mejia's attorney says he will appeal.