...I'm okay with being REALITY-based.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004
      ( 2:53 PM )
But the President Did It...

Next Monday, Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia of the Florida National Guard will turn himself over to authorities after being declared a deserter. He went AWOL (one of over 600) after he returned home from Iraq on leave. He intends to seek conscientious-objector status because he says that the war is immoral and soldiers are being required to do immoral things. His attorney has equated his action with that of the president:

"We are asking the military to treat [Mejia] the same way
that the military treated President George Bush when he
was in the Texas National Guard. That is, his alleged AWOL
or desertion and failure to report to Alabama was treated
through administrative channels rather than acted upon
judicially," he said

Only there is a vast difference between a rich son of a senator being given special dispensation when he decides he just won't show up to duty, and who never saw a day of battle in his entire military "career" and a young, working class soldier who joined up to defend this country despite not even being a citizen, and who went willingly to war in another country and saw horrible atrocities while he was there. So I'm sure he'll be treated with just as much respect as George W. was 30 years ago. Hah!

How Sgt. Mejia is punished is one matter. What he will bring up to his accusers is another. Mejia has recounted many experiences in Iraq that compounded to convince him not to return:

Mejia accuses commanders of using GIs as "bait" to lure
out Iraqi fighters so that U.S. soldiers could win combat
decorations. He also says operations were conducted in
ways that sometimes risked injuring civilians. He has
accused his battalion and company commanders of
incompetence and has reiterated other guardsmen's
complaints about being poorly equipped.


Perhaps the turning point for Mejia was the day in Iraq
when he was ordered to shoot at Iraqis protesting and
hurling grenades toward his position from about 75
yards away, which he considered too far of a distance
to be a real threat. Mejia and his men opened fire on
one, and he fell, his blood pooling around him.

"It was the first time I had fired at a human being,"
Mejia recalled. "I guess you could say it was my
initiation at killing a human being. . . . One thing I ask
myself a lot, `Did I hit him?'

"It was part of a general feeling that we had no right
to be there, and every killing, whether provoked or
not provoked, was unjustified because we had no
right to be there."

The article goes on to report that Mejia's commanders say he is a mama's boy (they literally call him that) because his mother would not help him renew his paperwork to keep his residency status (he's not even a citizen, but he went to fight and risk his life for this country). They say that he lost his nerve, that he's a scaredy-cat and so on. I don't know Sgt. Mejia so I don't pass judgment on him one way or another. His descriptions about what happened on the battlefield are terrible, and I cringe to think of what all those young people are witnessing and experiencing and how it will scar them for the rest of their lives. But what is interesting about this story is that conscientious objectors have been increasing and the government is now starting to grant more and more of that status to soldiers who refuse to return to the Iraq theatre.

It's a hard line to walk - on the one hand, it's technically an "all volunteer" force that's over there, and so the soldiers are expected to fall into line. But the reality is that most of the National Guard and Reserves are poorly equipped and barely trained for the services they are asked to perform, they are put out there for committments far longer than they ever "volunteered" for, and more often than not, soldiers are not in the military because they thought it would be a cool job - they joined up because they had no other good option for their future. This means that most of the soldiers are low-income and working class kids who just wanted a chance for a step up in life. Or they are family folks, dads and moms, who joined up to do part time military service to help support their families and get that little extra income that helps them survive. They are now serving in a desert where their bosses insist that they must put themselves out front in a fight against an invisible enemy for the ultimate goal of... they don't know what.

Things aren't black and white. Just as the spectre of Vietnam that rises in this election campaign isn't black and white, as demonstrated by candidate Kerry, who was both a dedicated soldier and a war protester. There is honor for Sgt. Mejia in that he served, no matter what others may say about his deciding not to go back. Many others face this dilemma this year, as they face the second and third deployment back to Iraq because we are so limited in numbers of soldiers.

We are going to need understanding, grace and the willingness to listen when we hear stories like this one about soldiers who just can't take it anymore. To not judge them as weak or failures, but to allow them their humanity, I think that is the greatest gift we can give them as their fellow citizens.

(thanks to Maru for the link)

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