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Archival Post from June 24, 2004 – Lawton Constitution: Family defends soldier seeking objector status

Archival post of newspaper article dated June 24, 2004:

Family defends soldier seeking objector status
Lawton Constitution, The (OK) – June 24, 2004
Edition: FinalSection: NewsPage: 3A

To the Army, Camilo Mejia is just a deserter.

But to his family and the supporters who held a vigil for him here Wednesday, the 28-year-old father is a “prisoner of conscience” who refused to return to Iraq for moral reasons.

The purpose of the vigil organized by the Oklahoma Committee for Conscientious Objectors was to advocate for official conscientious objector status for Mejia and for the commuting of his one-year sentence to time served.

According to Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, public affairs officer for 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Ga., former staff sergeant Camilo Mejia was considered absent without official leave (AWOL) as of Oct. 16, 2003, after he failed to return from two weeks’ R&R. Mejia turned himself in to the custody of military authorities at Fort Stewart on March 17. Charges were preferred against him on March 24 by Fort Stewart’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., court-martial convening authority.

Mejia was arraigned April 16, and his trial began May 19. He was tried by special court-martial under Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which covers desertion.

Mejia was ordered to serve one year in the Fort Sill Regional Corrections Facility, at the end of which he is to receive a bad conduct discharge (assuming the conscience objector packet and hearing does not change this part of the sentence). He was also reduced in rank from staff sergeant E-6 to private E-1 and ordered to forfeit two-thirds of his pay for 12 months.

The vigil was timed to coincide with a hearing on Mejia’s application for conscientious objector status. Although the hearing took place on Fort Sill Wednesday, it was conducted by officials from Fort Stewart, according to Master Sgt. Tony McKinney, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Fort Sill Public Affairs Office.

As the vigil was ending shortly after 4 p.m., participants said the hearing was still going on and they had received no word as to the outcome.

“We haven’t heard anything, and I’m not sure my office will,” Kent said from Fort Stewart later Thursday.

A short bio of Mejia can be found at www.freecamilo.org/bio.htm. It says that Mejia, born in August 1975, is a dual citizen of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. He lived between the two countries until 1994, when he, his mother and his brother moved to the United States.

Mejia grew up in Catholic schools. In Nicaragua, he studied in the Roman Catholic High School Colegio Centro America administered by the Jesuits. Later, he attended another Roman Catholic School, Colegio Calazans, in Costa Rica.

According to the Web site, “both his parents were strongly committed to the Sandinista revolution that developed to overthrow the Somcista dictatorship … imposed by the American administration in 1934, after the assassination of Gen. Augusto Cesar Sandino, who fought against the American invasion and its local allies.”

An Associated Press story identifies Mejia’s father as singer Carlos Mejia Godoy, “best known for writing the line, ‘Let’s fight the Yankee, enemy of humanity,’ into Nicaragua’s former Sandinista anthem.

In 1995, after coming to the U.S., Mejia was making minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant in Miami as he tried to complete high school by taking night classes. The bio says the government turned down his request for financial aid, and when he was approached by an army recruiting team, he signed on with the armed forces.

Following a three-year hitch in the regular Army, he joined the Florida National Guard partly because he was promised tuition assistance at Florida’s state universities.

According to Mejia, “I believe most young people who join the military do so for reasons other than the war. I know I joined because I thought that doing so would bring me in touch with people all over the United States and maybe even the world. … I was also seduced by the promise of a free college education, which later turned out to be not so free.”

Copyright 2004 by The Lawton Constitution, All rights Reserved. Supporters of Camilo Mejia hold a vigil for him here Wednesday as they await the outcome of his hearing on an application for conscientious objector status. Mejia, a former staff sergeant at Fort Stewart, Ga., is serving one year in the Fort Sill Regional Corrections Facility at Fort Sill for desertion after he failed to return to Iraq from two weeks’ R&R.

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CCA Executive & Legal Director