Camilo's Retreat

He left the war behind to enter a whole new controversy

Inside a holding cell, two American soldiers deprived four hooded prisoners of sleep for at least two days, he contends. In addition to insulting the detainees with racial epithets ("Get up you goddamned Hajji") and expletives ("Up, motherfucker, up"), the Americans fooled the Iraqis by letting them sleep for 30 to 45 seconds and then awakening them, Camilo claims. One soldier banged a sledgehammer against the wall. A lieutenant put his pistol to the temple of a prisoner who was sobbing uncontrollably.

For the next six hours Camilo and his men guarded the enemy combatants. "Some of the guys yelled at them to stay awake on my orders," Camilo says. "They used the sledgehammer, but not the gun." Camilo contends he was afraid to criticize the treatment. "There were a lot of ways to justify what we were doing, and I used them all," he concedes.

"Abu Ghraib wasn't some isolated event involving a few bad apples. High government officials and nameless contractors were calling the shots."

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


Hear a clip from the Mejía interview:

Sgt. Mike Naugle, Camilo's superior, says only part of Camilo's story is true. He denies crimes were committed at Al Asad. "Yes, there was sleep deprivation used," he says. "I don't know if you would consider that abuse considering you have terrorist cutting people's heads off."

By July 2003 the insurgents had intensified their attacks in ar Ramadi. One day an improvised bomb killed an Iraqi and injured seven others. One American soldier lost his leg and another his eye in the same attack. Soon Charlie Company's squad leaders received orders to block all of the city's major intersections during curfew, a mission dubbed "Operation Shutdown."

Military leaders believed attackers were coming from outside Ar Ramadi, but Camilo insists they were local. "They knew the lay of the land," he says. "They would escape into people's homes."

Operation Shutdown was a disaster from the get-go, Camilo explains. The first mistake, he asserts, was Lt. Col. Hector Mirabile's order that the platoon squads follow the same procedure for three consecutive nights. "It gave away the element of surprise," Camilo relays. "He would constantly make us do things that made no sense. There was a lot of resentment against him." (Mirabile, who is currently a financial analyst in the City of Miami employee relations department, declined repeated requests for comment.)

On the third night of Operation Shutdown an American soldier opened fire with his machine gun on an eighteen-wheeler that failed to stop at a roadblock, killing the civilian driver. No weapons or explosives were found in the truck.

On day four Camilo's squad walked into a raging gun battle at a roadblock that was being manned by two other squads from Charlie Company. Four soldiers, including a lieutenant, had been seriously injured when their Humvee was hit by either a rocket-propelled grenade or a mine. Shrapnel and bullets tore up one man's legs and ripped three fingers off another. Two others were cut in the arms and neck.

In response, at another checkpoint, American soldiers with a 50-caliber gun decapitated a man who was driving fast though a checkpoint. Riding in the passenger seat was the man's child, whom Camilo saw crying next to the corpse.

Then Mirabile ordered yet another night of Operation Shutdown. "It seemed pretty clear that the colonel was using us as bait to instigate a firefight," Camilo says. "But no one was going to question the chain of command."

Camilo argues the lieutenant colonel exposed his men to danger unnecessarily. "Mirabile had been in the infantry for twenty years and had no combat experience whatsoever, Camilo says. "That is like being a chef and you never cooked a meal." Sgt. Mike Naugle also admitted that he had not seen combat in his 24 years until being deployed to Iraq. "The majority of us, between 95 percent to 99 percent I'd say, had never seen action," Naugle adds.

Private Oliver Perez, who was part of Camilo's squad, echoed Camilo's statement. "A lot of the missions put us in harm's way, almost as if intentionally," says Perez, who enlisted when he was nineteen years old and left the military in 2006. "It was an unrealistic expectation to have us stay in the same spot, even kind of suicidal."

A few days after the end of Operation Shutdown, Camilo says he was shown an anonymous letter threatening Mirabile and his family in South Florida if the battalion was not redeployed home. "They were trying to find out who wrote it," Camilo explains. "I think it had to do with the fact that he wanted to beautify his resume to make it appear that he was hardcore, that he saw combat and that he killed a lot bad guys."

(Mirabile provided drama for CNN's Christiane Amanpour, who aired a report five months after Operation Shutdown citing the lieutenant colonel's 24 years as a Miami cop as his secret weapon in training Ar Ramadi's then-nascent police force. "Everything is driven by intelligence," Mirabile commented on camera. On the day of the interview, Mirabile and Amanpour observed a house raid where armed forces turned up a stash of rocket-propelled grenades and a couple of AK-47s. Mirabile informed the camera that the raid nabbed a tribal warlord. "What this reminds me of," he boasted, "is the old 1978-1986 cocaine cabals we used to have in Miami, where you'd find firepower like this.")

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