Camilo Meija Speaks At Left Bank

One of my favorite bands, State Radio, has a song called "Camilo" (fan video shown above), which is a tribute to Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, an Iraq War veteran who went AWOL and refused to return to Iraq after a two-week furlough in the US. After being on the run for five months, Mejia turned himself in to military officials, filed for conscientious objector status, which was denied, and was tried and convicted of desertion. He was sentenced to one year in a military prison and discharged for bad conduct. He served his sentence and was released in 2005. Since then, he has spoken out against the war. His argument for his desertion was that the orders he was under in Iraq were in effect, war crimes, including abuse and torture of prisoners, and that made the war illegal, and he could not, in good conscious, continue to participate in an immoral and illegal war. He was the first Iraq War veteran to refuse further service

I have followed Meija's story since I heard the song "Camilo", and tonight I got the opportunity to hear him speak at Left Bank Books here in St. Louis, where he read from and discussed his book, Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Meija. It was an honor and privilege to meet him.

Mejia has been made out in the media to be a coward, someone who only spoke out as a conscientious objector to save his own skin, but just listening him speak would convince those who question Mejia's motives. He talked about what being an occupier in an occupied country was like, and how, when you are literally in constant fear of losing your life in a completely alien culture, the line between "good" and "bad" disappears, and clarity about your own conscience cannot be fully realized within that context. Many criticize him because he had been in the Army National Guard for eight years, yet he only claimed CO status after his tour of Iraq. He says that was because although he knew what was happening in Iraq was wrong, it took his removal from Iraq during his furlough to realize that he could not, in good conscience, continue to serve in Iraq. While he was in prison, Amnesty International, the world's largest human rights organization, declared him a Prisoner of Conscience and campaigned on his behalf.

As I listened to him speak about the atrocities of the War, of the anguish he felt by "deserting" his fellow soldiers, and his process of declaring himself a conscientious objector, I was moved to tears. The courage it must have taken him, to risk his career, to risk the respect of his fellow soldiers, to risk his standing in the US (he was/is a green card holder; his conviction was not grounds for deportation), was both humbling and inspiring. He continues to speak out against the war, and is active in Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against The War, and Amnesty International. Chris and I both got a copy of his book, which I can't wait to read even though I have eight million other things to do right now. He signed my copy, "To Kelli: with thanks for your support and your work as a teacher," and signed Chris's copy (for his classroom) "To Mr. Oliver's classes: wishing you a future dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of life."

We are Partners of Conscience for Amnesty, and plan on becoming active in the local chapter. If you are in St Louis and interested in the local chapter, there is a monthly business/education meeting the 2nd Tuesday of the month, 7PM at the Schlafly Branch Library in the CWE, and a monthly action meeting, dedicated to actively working on campaigns, the 4th Tuesday of each month at 7PM at Hartford Coffee Company in Tower Grove South.

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