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Objecting to war
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This much is certain -- Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia went into hiding rather than return to Iraq.

Two weeks later, he surfaced and turned himself in to military authorities, saying he wanted to declare himself a conscientious objector. Army commanders decided he should be tried, and his court martial has just begun at Fort Stewart.

The case has stirred international media attention. Is Mejia a hero, as some have said, or is he a coward, deserving a prison sentence?

One of Mejia’s most ardent supporters -- his mother -- is firmly on her son’s side. Maritza Castillo plans to travel from her home in Miami to Fort Stewart for the duration of the trial.

“I’m worried about everything because we don’t know what will happen,” Castillo says. “We hope everything will be okay.

“Camilo has written a very good document (outlining his position as a conscientious objector),” she says. “He has a very good lawyer. People who know him from Iraq say he is no coward.”

Despite a limited command of English, Castillo penned a letter in her son’s defense. That letter was posted on the Internet, and has captured the attention of the world.

Mejia came to the United States from Nicaragua with his mother when he was 19. He is a permanent or “green card” resident who joined the Army to learn more about American society.

After serving for three years, Mejia joined the Florida National Guard to receive tuition assistance at state universities. He then began attending classes at the University of Miami, where he was working towards a degree in psychology.

In January 2003, during his final semester in college, Mejia’s unit, C Company, 1-124 INF of the 53d Infantry Brigade, was activated. The unit was sent to Fort Stewart for pre-mobilization combat training.

After a few weeks of training, Mejia’s unit was sent to a Middle Eastern country to guard a Patriot missile base, and from there sent into Iraq. He served five months of active duty as a squad leader in the Sunni Triangle, an area north and west of Baghdad where anti-American attacks have been the most frequent.

At the end of May, Mejia’s squad was ambushed and a bomb exploded in the road in front of the lead Humvee. Following what he understood was Standard Operating Procedure, Mejia ordered his squad to retreat.

Bullets rained down on the vehicles as they drove away, but no one was hurt. Mejia was asked why the squad fled. He was told that the wrong message had been sent to the attackers, that the military’s duty was not to run from the enemy, but to kill them.

Mejia has told family and friends that reservists are treated differently than active duty GIs. He has said that when one of them is killed or injured, they are not replaced, and supplies and materials also are not replaced.

But it was the U.S. military’s treatment of civilians that most upset Mejia, his mother says. He saw many civilians being killed, including a small boy who was carrying an AK-47 rifle.

Two children walking with the boy ran away, and he began trying to crawl away. He was hit by a second shot, but was still alive.

Mejia claims that an Iraqi who tried to take the boy to a civilian hospital was stopped. Instead, the boy was taken to a military facility, where confusion resulted in a lack of care and he died.

On Oct. 1, Mejia returned home for a two-week leave. Although he was supposed to return to his unit on Oct. 16, he went into hiding with friends in Boston and New York City.

To avoid capture, Mejia paid with cash and traveled by bus to avoid being stopped by police. He stayed away from his family in Florida, even avoiding his 3-year-old daughter.

After two weeks in hiding, Mejia surrendered to military authorities at Hanscom Air Force Base west of Boston, saying he wanted to be considered a conscientious objector. He also called a press conference, telling listeners that the war was immoral because it unnecessarily put soldiers in harm’s way and that U.S. commanders were too quick to take Iraqi lives.

Mejia is believed to be the first soldier to refuse to return to Iraq on grounds of conscience. Because he was AWOL for more than 30 days, he was charged with one count of desertion and could face up to one year in prison and a Bad Conduct Discharge.

After his surrender, Mejia was released on his own recognizance and ordered to report to the National Guard’s Miami headquarters. After he was charged with desertion, he was returned to Fort Stewart, where he has been restricted to the base.

For a conviction, prosecutors must demonstrate that Mejia did not intend to return to duty. To be classified as a conscientious objector, he would have to demonstrate that he is opposed to all war, not just the war in Iraq.

Since his return to Fort Stewart, Mejia has been restricted from calling anyone but his family or attorney. The commanders at Fort Stewart have not allowed reporters to come on base to conduct live interviews with him.

Calls to the Fort Stewart Consolidated Public Affairs Office for information about the case were not returned. However, a media advisory was issued saying that access to the trial would be limited and that reporters might have to pool their resources because of a lack of space.

That action has infuriated Tod Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier, an anti-war group that supports military personnel. “That is completely unacceptable to us,” he says. “There have to be spaces there that are large enough for everyone.”

The timing of the advisory also upset Ensign. “They sent it out on Friday afternoon, when they were off golfing and couldn’t be reached,” he says. “Then they wonder why people don’t trust them.”

Boston attorney Louis Font, who specializes in military law, is representing Mejia. He himself a conscientious objector during the war with Vietnam.

Font could not be reached for comment, but Mejia’s mother says the attorney is confident the case can be won. In addition to documentary evidence about Mejia’s anti-war beliefs, Font will argue that the war on Iraq was never legal and will call on specialists in international law to back that assertion.

Because of his mother’s letter and his attorney’s efforts, Mejia has some powerful supporters on his side who are expected to testify on his behalf.

Ensign also will attend the trial. He and Font have worked together on several cases in the past, and are collaborating on Mejia’s. “One of the issues he will be raising is that Camilo witnessed Iraqi prisoners being tortured at another base five months before the Abu Ghiraib incident,” Ensign says.

Mejia has offered to testify before Congress about the torture of detainees he witnessed at Al Assad in May 2003. Ensign says it is ironic that on the same morning Mejia’s case opens in Hinesville, the first Abu Ghiraib trial will open in Iraq.

“They are trying Camilo for refusing to go back he doesn’t want to torture people,” Ensign says. “Yet they are trying Pvt. Jeremy Sivits because he did torture people.”

Ensign says Army officials contacted Font and asked him to provide a list of potential audience members. “He said that after 27 years doing exclusively military defense, he’s never heard of such a thing,” Ensign says. “This is not Nazi Germany. We are not giving them a list of names ever.”

Citizen Soldier became involved in the case after Mejia contacted Ensign after turning himself in. “We talked to him at length and decided he was sincere and deserves our support,” Ensign says. “We agreed to help and defend him. I will be there (at the trial), his family will be there and we expect a lot of other support.”

Representatives of news organizations in Britain, New Zealand, Italy, Greece and Germany have all contacted Ensign to get information about the case. Ensign attributes the international interest to the Internet.

“Everyone can tap an Internet site and in 10 minutes, have the whole story,” he says. “Before e-mail and faxes, it would take weeks to get this information out.”

Several anti-war groups are expected to attend the trial, including representatives of Code Pink, a national women’s organization. “We oppose the war and started this organization as a response to the administration’s decision to go to war,” says Gael Murphy, one of the founders of Code Pink.

Code Pink and other groups will conduct a vigil in support of Mejia that will last until the court martial is over. “I think he’s a significant individual in the whole situation,” Murphy says. “We are opposed to U.S. involvement in Iraq because the invasion and the occupation are illegal.”

To monitor the situation in Iraq, Code Pink established a watch group in Baghdad that has been reporting back since July. Murphy says she saw for herself what is occurring in Iraq during a trip to Baghdad.

“This administration spent a lot of time dehumanizing Iraqis,” Murphy says. “We are seeing the evil of it now.

“We have destroyed a country and pitted the world against us. It does not make us any more safe.

“Camilo is quite a brave young man to step out,” she says. “He felt it was important to speak and face the consequences. We want to support him and we want to support his family.”

For now, Mejia is doing well despite his uncertain future, says his mother. “He’s fine because he thinks he’s doing the right thing,” Castillo says. “He’s at peace with himself.”