A former UM student is being charged with desertion after turning himself in to the U.S. Army for being absent without leave for five months.
Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, a member of the Army National Guard who was studying psychology at UM before being called to active duty, turned himself in to authorities March 16 and requested conscientious objector status – designating a member who does not engage in combat – based on his belief that the war in Iraq is immoral.
Mejia served six months in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq. He made his decision while home on leave for two weeks through the U.S. Central Command’s Rest and Relaxation Program.
During his time being AWOL, Mejia spent most of his time in New York. He turned himself in at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. The military allowed Mejia to return to his Guard unit in Miami, and from there he was sent to Fort Stewart, Ga.
“Sgt. Mejia was read the charges of desertion – which is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice [UCMJ] – on March 24, but he has not been arrested,” Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, public affairs officer at Fort Stewart, said. “We believe he will go to trial in May, but his request for conscientious objector status is a separate issue and will not have an effect on his case.”
Mejia’s pass privileges were revoked, so he cannot leave Fort Stewart, but he is free to move about on the post and go bowling, swimming and shopping. He is also allowed to have visitors.
According to Kent, this is quite common for any soldier facing action under the UCMJ.
“He is being treated fairly and honorably as with any other soldier within the legal system,” Kent said. “He is not being spotlighted for special treatment of any kind.”
I think he truly had a moment where he thought, “I can’t do this – it’s not morally right.” -JOSE RODRIGUEZ, FORMER ADVISOR
While the military may not be giving him special consideration, Mejia is receiving national attention for his actions.
Feelings concerning the situation are split, some agreeing with Rodriguez and others questioning the method by which Mejia decided to voice his opposition to the war.
“I don’t believe Camilo thought about how politically charged his decision would be,” Jose Rodriguez, Mejia’s former advisor in the Department of Psychology, said. “I think he truly had a moment where he thought, ‘I can’t do this – it’s not morally right.'”
Describing him as a “very kind soul,” Rodriguez believes Mejia is “getting a bum wrap for having the courage to speak his mind against the administration and the war in general.”
“Whereas I might be inclined to believe that a soldier involved in war who conscientiously objects…could be afforded a certain sympathy, my sympathies do not extend as far in this situation,” said Adam Altman, J.D. and professor in the Department of Psychology. “While Sgt. Mejia should not be forced to take up the charge of war when sufficient numbers of others willingly will do so…the ends in this instance do not justify the means because other means apparently were available to him.”
No matter what public opinion is, Mejia’s future will be in the hands of either a military judge or a panel of his peers, depending on which his defense team chooses. If convicted, he could face a bad conduct discharge and a year in confinement.
Catherine Howden can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.