Camilo's Retreat

He left the war behind to enter a whole new controversy

But his superiors reprimanded him for not being a team player, and ordered push-ups. "I was supposed to suck it up and not be critical," Camilo says. Yet he did well enough to earn ribbons for army service and national defense, medals for achievement and good conduct, and certificates for good performance and discipline during training exercises before his days at Fort Hood came to an end in late 1998.

Camilo contends he never realized the full implication of his enlistment until he was about to complete three years of active duty. Every recruit who signs a military contract commits to at least eight years. The armed forces give enlistees the option of two to four years of active duty, then the balance in the reserves or National Guard. It's all laid out in black and white, according to Naugle. That he didn't realize the commitment "is a crock," he says. "When I signed my paperwork, it was perfectly clear what my commitment was."

Camilo claims he was preoccupied with salary and tuition benefits. "I was nineteen years old," Camilo says. "I was naive. Had I read the contract more carefully, would I have changed my mind? I don't really know."

Camilo Mejía
Camilo Mejía
On May 21, 2004, two military police officers led Camilo away in handcuffs following his conviction on desertion charges
On May 21, 2004, two military police officers led Camilo away in handcuffs following his conviction on desertion charges

Details

Hear a clip from the Mejía interview:

By 1999 Camilo was a weekend warrior in the National Guard, attending community college in Miami. Two years later he transferred to the University of Miami, where he briefly dated the woman who is the mother of his daughter. The relationship ended after two months. In October, weeks after their breakup, Camilo learned his ex-girlfriend, then 33 years old, was pregnant. He's reticent to talk about the relationship. "There is really not much to say about it," Camilo says reluctantly. "She was with someone else."

On June 7, 2000, their daughter was born. A month later Camilo sued his ex-girlfriend in family court to gain shared custody. A year later a DNA test proved Camilo was the father. On March 28, 2002, the former lovers agreed Camilo would pay $1524 in back child support and $316 a month. The woman — whom New Times is not naming — has primary custody, but Camilo is allowed twice weekly visits and some weekends.

In a way, the paternity suit foreshadowed Camilo's later action. He showed an assertive persona and a penchant for controversy. He became part of his daughter's life — as he would choose to become part of the protest movement. "I wanted to play a role in my child's life, so I had to initiate a paternity action," he says, his only comment on the matter.

In the days leading up to 9/11, Camilo tried to combine being a military man, a college student, and a father. After the invasion of Afghanistan, his mother feared the worst. "I remember back in 2000 Camilo had told me the possibility existed his guard unit could see action in the Middle East," she says. "The beating of war drums had begun and they didn't stop."

But no notice arrived in the mail, and by the upcoming end of 2002 Camilo prepared for the end of his eight-year contract, in May 2003. "I was working as a volunteer crisis counselor for people with AIDS and the homeless," Camilo recounts. "I was going to apply for the Ph.D. program, and I was looking forward to spending more time with [my daughter]."

On January 14, 2003, during one of his weekend stints in the National Guard, Camilo was cleaning weapons inside the Guard barracks in Miami. "There was a lot of chatter that our battalion was being activated," Camilo says. Then battalion commander Lt. Col. Hector Mirabile — a career policeman and former comptroller for the Miami Police Department — informed his troops that they had been activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Anyone who was serving could be called again until 2031 as a result of a congressional order.

Like it or not, Camilo was going to war.


In late May 2003, Camilo took his squad to Al Asad, an old Iraqi Air Force base that had been obliterated by coalition forces. "Our mission was to help run a prisoner-of-war camp," Camilo says. "But we weren't allowed to call it that because we didn't have the Red Cross or military police there, so it was designated a detainee camp."

About two dozen prisoners had their heads hooded and their hands tied behind their backs, he claims. CIA interrogators were in abundance. So were former special ops soldiers working as independent contractors.

Among the prisoners were two Iraqi men who had been found holding empty wood crates that allegedly carried explosives, Camilo says. There was also a prisoner who had been caught with a sniper rifle, which he claimed he was using to protect his sheep from thieves. "Later on we learned that most Iraqis own rifles and pistols to defend themselves from rival tribes," Camilo says. "It took us awhile to stop viewing every Iraqi with a weapon as an armed insurgent."

Late one night, six months before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Camilo alleges he and his squad witnessed and participated in torturing detained Iraqis. "It was not the same type of excessive abuse," Camilo says. "But that kind of humiliation was taking place from the very beginning."

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