Army resister speaks to high school students

LAWRENCE, Mass. — Camilo Mejía, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army who served a year in jail for refusing to return to Iraq, urged young people here to learn the facts before deciding whether to enlist in the armed forces.

“Before you join the military, go to a military hospital” to see what war does to a person, Mejía told about 80 high school students who came to hear him speak Dec. 7 at Lawrence High School. Twenty others also attended the meeting.

Mejía said military recruiters are using false promises of free money for education, job training, and the unlikelihood of seeing combat as incentives for enlistment, especially now when recruitment is low because of the Iraq war.

He said a military recruiter offered him college tuition in exchange for “two weeks a year and one weekend a month” in the Florida National Guard. Mejía said he believed the recruiter when he was told the Guard would only be involved in rescue work during natural disasters and not sent into combat. “In Florida we have a lot of hurricanes,” he said.

Instead, he said, his National Guard unit was sent to Iraq for combat duty.

Mejía said the main victims of the Iraq war are civilians, noting that while it is sad that over 2,000 U.S. soldiers have died, about 100,000 Iraqis have also died. He charged there are “commanders instigating combat to get promotions” for their personal gain, and that U.S. troops sometimes fire on innocent civilians out of fear that they may be insurgents. “My unit alone killed 33 people,” he said, but “only three of them had weapons.”

He said his refusal to return to Iraq at the end of his leave was “probably the most difficult decision” he has had to make, and he was “really afraid” to not return. He said the military doesn’t follow its own rules governing conscientious objector status. If it did, he said, there would be a flood of applications.

Mejía said there was a “quiet resistance” to the war among soldiers. “When I went AWOL there were no other soldiers AWOL. Shortly thereafter, there were 22. When I got out [of jail] there were 5,500 — today more than 6,000.”

When asked about his year in prison, Mejía said it was better than going to kill or be killed in Iraq. “I felt free in jail because I was free to follow my conscience,” he said.

Fernando Brea, a member of Unite Here and delegate to the Merrimack Valley Central Labor Council, urged the students to see Michael Moore’s movie “Fahrenheit 911,” which questions the Bush administration’s use of the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, as the rationale for war.

One student who said she was in the Junior ROTC program in the high school objected to the movie, saying, “That movie is a lie.” When asked by a reporter what was untrue in the movie, she admitted she hadn’t seen it and was simply repeating what she had been told by her JROTC sergeant.

Several students who attended the meeting said they were considering enlisting, but were clearly moved by Mejía’s remarks.

Devin Fernández said she was impressed and “more people should be like him.”

Charyse Caratini agreed with Fernández, saying, “Everything they tell you is a lie to get you to join.”

Her friend Karen Benitez added, “He is telling the truth. It is a war for oil.”