Sergeant is seeking status as objector

Soldier says he's prepared to go to prison rather than return to war he opposes

March 17, 2004|By Robert Nolin and Tanya Weinberg | Robert Nolin and Tanya Weinberg,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Branded a cowardly deserter by some, lauded as a principled conscientious objector by others, Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia has become the human face of a new issue emerging from the Iraq war: When do a soldier's convictions trump his call to duty?

Today, the Florida National Guard veteran embarks on a journey that may ultimately end in the brig. He must be at Fort Stewart, Ga., by 3 p.m. to answer possible charges of desertion or being absent without leave. He is also seeking conscientious-objector status to bar his return to the combat zone and earn an honorable discharge.

Mejia, 28, served about five months in Iraq and failed to report back for duty last fall at the end of a two-week leave.

He said his experience in Iraq soured him on the military. "I disagree with this war. All you find is a bunch of lies," he said. "We're fighting for oil."

After several months in the Northeast, he surrendered Monday to authorities at an Air Force base in Massachusetts. He was told to report the next day to the National Guard armory in North Miami. From there he was directed to return today to the base that deployed him.

At Fort Stewart, a military legal team will review Mejia's case and decide what action to take. He could face up to one year in prison for being absent without leave and up to five years if convicted of desertion.

The platoon leader could also be jailed until his case is decided, but a Florida National Guard spokesman said that's unlikely.

Mejia, a Nicaraguan native, said he's willing to take that risk. "I'm prepared to go to prison because I'll have a clear conscience," he told the Associated Press.

Mejia's case has drawn national attention and resurrected questions about when conscientious-objector status should be granted - arguments rarely heard since the Vietnam War.

Airport bystanders grumbled about Mejia's stance when he arrived at Fort Lauderdale on Monday night.

Mejia said he has already been labeled a "coward" by one of his commanders in Iraq.

He may have a tough time convincing officials that he genuinely opposes violence. Mejia, a college student who is a permanent U.S. resident, served three years in the Army before his current five-year stint in the Florida National Guard.

"These cases are a hard sell," said Eugene R. Fidell, a Washington lawyer who handled conscientious-objector petitions as a Coast Guard hearing officer during the Vietnam era. Someone seeking such status must prove they oppose war in general, not any single conflict.

"Does his objection go to war in all form, or is it case specific to the Iraq war?" Fidell said. "You can't pick and choose. It has to be a profound philosophical or religious conviction."

As of last summer, the military had granted such status to about 45 soldiers a year.

Meija's lawyer, Louis Font, said his client is the first Iraq war veteran to seek objector status. "That is significant, and likely there will be others," Font said.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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