Camilo's Retreat

He left the war behind to enter a whole new controversy

During the proceedings that followed, the military judge did not allow Camilo's defense team to call expert witnesses. The defendant was also denied the opportunity to present his allegations of prisoner abuse and other war crimes as the basis for his refusal to rejoin the war.

Private Oliver Perez was one of the two soldiers in Camilo's unit allowed to testify on his behalf. He told the jury that his sergeant always "led from the front." "He often questioned the higherups when others wouldn't say a word," Perez says today. "Camilo was a great leader and a great soldier. I'd fight alongside him any day."

Private Phillip Estime told the court that Camilo was like a father figure. "He looked out for us," the Haitian-American trooper said. "He put us before himself."

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:

On May 21, 2004, a military tribunal found the sergeant guilty of desertion and sentenced him to a year in prison. "I sit here a free man. I will sit behind bars as a free man," he told the tribunal. "I followed my conscience and provided leadership."

Among those who testified against him was Tad Warfel, who told reporters, "It was a great day for the army, a great day for the Florida National Guard, and a great day for soldiers."

Ten days after his sentencing, the 126 men from Charlie Company came home. Unlike Camilo, they served thirteen long dangerous months in Ar Ramadi, conducting perilous missions, sometimes with less ammunition and fewer supplies than regular troops. Battalion members earned 24 Purple Hearts. Warfel was among the wounded. He had taken shrapnel in his left forearm.

Soon Camilo was moved to a military prison in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where the great Indian warrior Geronimo had died in captivity. He stayed two weeks in an isolation cell. "I was kind of a political celebrity then," he says. A month later Camilo joined the general population. He and the other prisoners would wake up at 4:30 a.m. They'd clean their barracks, eat breakfast, and report for work. "I washed dishes for maybe four, five months straight," Camilo says. "Around 5:45 p.m., we would get recreation time. We could work out at the gym, play billiards or ping-pong in the game room, or go to the library." Among the books he read: the Bible, The DaVinci Code and Vaclav Havel's Disturbing the Peace.

On June 14, 2004, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan sent President George W. Bush a letter requesting the commander in chief release Camilo. Earlier that week, the human rights organization had declared him a prisoner of conscience. The letter cited Camilo's accounts of prisoner abuse and killing civilians as reasons to free this son of Nicaraguan revolutionaries. "While recognizing that Camilo went [AWOL]," Khan wrote, "Amnesty International considers that he did take reasonable steps to secure his discharge legally that Camilo has genuinely conscientious grounds for his objections to the war."

Camilo's time in jail was not altogether bad. "I would get tons of mail," he says. "Most of the people in military prison are not afraid of speaking out, so being a deserter earned me a lot of respect."

Maritza Castillo traveled from Miami to the small Oklahoma town at least four times. She was amazed at the support shown to her son. "It was very inspirational," she notes. "They had set up vigils outside the prison with banners in favor of Camilo, and candles at the entrance."

The hardest moment during Camilo's incarceration was the time his then-three-year-old daughter came to visit him during the sixth month of his lockup. That day she was wearing a light color summer dress and sandals. Her shoulder length brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. They spent about two hours together. When it was time to leave, she didn't want to go. "Daddy, can't I sleep here on the sofa?" she asked. "Can't I stay so we can play again tomorrow?"

When she left, Camilo says, it was "like she belonged to a different world, a place I could not enter. That was the first time I truly felt like a prisoner."

On February 15, 2005, Camilo was freed three months early for good behavior. His mother, his aunt, his stepdad, and his daughter joined local activists in meeting him when he walked out of the prison gates. They all — about a dozen people — drove to a church in Oklahoma City, where Camilo lunched on pasta and drank a glass of red wine.

Camilo was the first soldier to go AWOL and publicly protest the war, but many others followed him. There were 2450 deserters in 2004, according to army statistics released in early April. The number rose to approximately 2700 in 2005 and 3300 last year. Since the fiscal year began this past October 1, 871 soldiers have deserted. The military has also amped up its prosecution of deserters. From 2002 to 2006, prosecutions have more than doubled to an average of 390 per year.

On July 28, 2005, Camilo returned to Fort Stewart, the site of his court martial, to support Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who also was convicted of deserting the war. Since last year Camilo has also sat on the board of directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War. He has crisscrossed the country sharing his story at rallies and vigils, including one this past March 24 at FIU's north campus commemorating the Iraq occupation's fourth anniversary.

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