It is true that as a soldier it is not your job to question the nature of a mission, but what if that mission violates your sense of morality so much you cannot reconcile what you have been asked to do with your most basic beliefs?
I believe it is true that no man or woman should be punished for refusing to participate in terrible acts such as those I saw and was asked to carry out in Iraq.
So I refused to return.
I joined the military in 1995 when I was 19 years old. Like many, I saw the military as a way to get to college. During my active duty service I earned a good conduct medal, an Army Commendation and an Army Achievement medal.
But in 2003, towards the end of my second enlistment, I was deployed as a staff sergeant to ar-Ramadi in southern Iraq as a part of the Florida National Guard. After my unit took over a military detention facility, one of my duties included the processing of detainees.
We were instructed by military interrogators, men without name tags, uniforms or any way to identify them, to "soften up" detainees. We were shown how to keep the men awake as long as possible by yelling at them, making them sit and stand in different positions for varying amounts of time, keeping them hooded and bound in an area enclosed by concertina wire so they couldn't move without cutting themselves. If one fell down from exhaustion, we were supposed to grab a sledgehammer and slam it into the wall next to their heads. We were taught how to perform mock executions with 9mm pistols.
On the battlefield, unarmed civilians were killed and wounded during firefights. I saw the destruction of people's properties and livelihoods. The humiliation of an entire nation by our occupying forces, and the unnecessary bloodshed of Americans and Iraqis.
Increasingly I found that I could no longer tolerate my complicity in what I considered immoral behavior.
After serving five months in Iraq, I was granted a fifteen-day furlough to return to Florida. It was there that I decided I would not return but would instead speak about the reasons why I felt the war was immoral and criminal. I was charged with desertion and the intent to "avoid hazardous duty," which led to a court martial. I was convicted, sentenced to 12 months in a military jail, reduced in rank from staff sergeant to private, and given a bad conduct discharge.
I don't believe I behaved badly. In fact I think I did the right thing, and with the help of my attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights, I will ask the appeals court to recognize the principle that a soldier should not be obligated to act against his conscience and outside the law by participating in war crimes and should not be punished for doing so.
My friend Victor Agosto is being court-martialed for refusing to take part in the occupation of Afghanistan, and today, Veterans for Peace is convening a national conference outside of Washington, DC. We have the firsthand experience to know what these wars are doing to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and to the soldiers, our brothers and sisters on the ground. I hope the world will listen.
When we strip soldiers of their ability to make moral decisions we impose a burden on them that strikes at the core of their being. We steal their power to be guided by their own moral compass and ask them to live with the consequences.
Camilo E. Mejia, Former Staff Sergeant, Florida National Guard and author of Road from Ar Ramadi.