Soldier-turned-peace activist comes to Maplewood

Speaking to an audience of New Jersey Peace Action activists who on Saturday celebrated their organization’s 50th anniversary, former National Guard squad leader Camillo Mejia of Miami called for an end to the war in Iraq.

"My initial reaction (in 2002)was we had not justified an invasion of that country… I was afraid to protest a war that had not begun yet, and I did not want to be the one dissenting voice," said Mejia, who went anyway in 2003 on orders from his company commander and out of a sense of duty.

Among other responsibilities, he helped run a jet bunker that had been converted into a POW camp.

"This was our first mission in Iraq,’ the solider recalled, "and so obviously a change begins to take place, because I go from being politically opposed to the war, from reading about it in the newspapers and Time Magazine… to actually being there, doing these things: carrying out torture, and degrading human beings. But at the same time, we’re in this really intense environment where you’re at war."

He gutted through it.

Yet upon his return to the U.S., Mejia became the war’s first conscientious objector in early 2004, refusing to go back to Iraq for a second tour of duty. After five months underground, he surrendered to the military and spent nine months in a federal lockup in Oklahoma.

Mejia said at that time he was one of 22 deserters. This year, he said the U.S. Military reported between 4,000 and 5,000 deserters.

The soldier-turned-pacifist wrote a book about his experiences, "Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejia," which he signed after his remarks to a packed house at Columbia High School in Maplewood.

Madelyn Hoffman, executive director of New Jersey Peace Action, said her organization is committed to finding better ways than war to solve world conflicts, and continues to pressure the government to spend more dollars "on the community rather than on the machinery of war."

"When George Bush vetoed SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance) legislation, which would have been $34 billion over four years, that clearly demonstratedhow skewed his priorities are, as we spend $34 billion in Iraq in less than three months," Hoffman said. Soldier-turned-peace activist comes to Maplewood