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Soldier found peace and ‘liberation’ after refusing to return to war in Iraq

Emotional decision landed him in jail, where he reflected, healed

July 8, 2010

Camilo Mejia addressed the guests at the Peace Breakfast

Camilo Mejia, president of Iraq Veterans Against the War, addressed the guests at the Peace Breakfast on Wednesday. —Photo by Danny Bolin.

MINNEAPOLIS

Camilo Mejia, the nation’s first soldier to publicly refuse to return to the war in Iraq, told the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF) breakfast Wednesday his desertion and the  incarceration that followed “gave me a deep sense of liberation and made me feel I was in charge of my life for the first time. I was a human being before I was a soldier.”

Mejia is the author of Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejia. He has appeared on “60 Minutes” and is past president of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

While a soldier, Mejia guarded prisoners of war and served in the infantry. He said he applied for conscientious objector status following an emotional conversation with his stepsister during stateside leave in October 2003 because “I had to respond to something higher than military command.”

After nine months in the brig at Fort Sill, Okla., which Mejia described as “a time for reflection and healing,” he was mentored by “people like Bill Galvin,” who was named PPF’s Peace-Seeker for 2009 for his work with conscientious objectors. The winner of the 2010 prize is Mel Duncan, co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce, which has trained and deployed about 200 unarmed civilian peacekeepers in violent situations around the world.

Both men were honored at Wednesday’s breakfast.

PPF executive director Rick Ufford-Chase announced the group had raised $10,000 to join with three European Jewish groups to soon send a boat full of humanitarian supplies to Gaza.

The boat is being readied at an undisclosed Mediterranean harbor. On board will be 14 passengers, both Jewish and interfaith as well as reporters. If a second boat launches, PPF has asked that it include a North American Presbyterian.

On May 31, Israel used military force to prevent ships with the same humanitarian aid from reaching Gaza, where a blockade has trapped 1.5 million Palestinians in an area less than one-tenth the size of Rhode Island.

The Israeli action resulted in nine deaths and led PC(USA) Stated Clerk the Rev. Gradye Parsons to call for the end of the blockade and to urge Israel to permit the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.