AWOL


DAN RATHER, co-host:


In the year since American forces invaded Iraq, we’ve learned hundreds of American soldiers have broken the law and gone AWOL, “absent without leave.” This is the story of one of them and of the men he deserted. Tonight you will hear how Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia abandoned his unit in the middle of the war in one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq. In his only on-camera interview while he was still in hiding, he told us he went AWOL because he is morally opposed to a war that has killed or wounded nearly 4,000 United States soldiers. You will also hear from Sergeant Mejia’s commanding officer and his fellow National Guardsmen who are furious they were deserted by a squad leader they call a coward.



You’re AWOL now, are you not?


Staff Sergeant CAMILO MEJIA: Yes.


RATHER: Absent without leave.


Sgt. MEJIA: Yes, I am.


RATHER: How long have you been AWOL?


Sgt. MEJIA: Since mid-October of last year


RATHER: Have you been in hiding?


Sgt. MEJIA: I’ve been very careful.  I have not been home.  I have not been using my Internet account.  I have not been using my cellular phone. So I’ve been really careful.  I mean, I have not been with my family for a long time.


(Photo of Camilo Mejia)


RATHER: (Voiceover) Sergeant Mejia’s decision to go AWOL did not sit well with Captain Tad Warfel.


Captain TAD WARFEL: His duty’s not to question myself or anybody higher than me.


(Footage of Warfel; Warfel and reporter)


RATHER: (Voiceover) Captain warfel was Mejia’s Florida National Guard commanding officer.


Capt. WARFEL: His duty is to carry out the orders that I give him or his platoon leader gives him.  We’re not paid in the military to form personal opinions or to doubt what our leaders say.


(Photo of Mejia; footage of explosion; soldier convoy; Iraqis; photo of Mejia and soldiers; photo of Mejia; Mejia walking; Mejia and reporter; Mejia)


RATHER: (Voiceover) But Camilo Mejia says he did just that.  He was a staff sergeant and squad leader, but he says he started to have doubts about what his unit was doing in Ramadi, a hot spot in the Sunni Triangle. Mejia’s family is Nicaraguan, and he lives in Miami but he is not an American citizen. Like some 40,000 soldiers in the armed forces, he is a legal, permanent US resident.  Last fall, Sergeant Mejia was having difficulties with his legal status and was allowed to return to Miami for two weeks to work out the residency problem.  But then he refused to return to Iraq.  He felt so strongly about his decision that he took the risky step of going public and talking to us while still in hiding.


Why did this soldier go AWOL?


Sgt. MEJIA: This soldier went AWOL because this soldier does not think that this is a good war.  And when you look at the war and you look at the reasons that took us to war and you don’t find that any of the things that we were told we’re going to war for turned out to be true, when you don’t find there were weapons of mass destruction, and when you don’t find that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and you see that you’re not helping and you see that the people don’t want you there, to me, there’s no military contract and–and–and no military duty that is going to justify being a part of that war.


(Footage of explosion scene; soldiers; gun)


RATHER: (Voiceover) Captain Warfel could not disagree more, and believes the sergeant deserted his men and his responsibilities in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.


Capt. WARFEL: When we first landed in Baghdad, they said, ‘Oh, you’re going to Ramadi.  That’s the wild, wild West.” And when we got out there, that’s certainly what it was.  Very anti-American, anti-military.


RATHER: Captain, I know enough about soldiers to know that no soldier likes to talk about fear, but did you and your men fear death?


Capt. WARFEL: Yes.


RATHER: Will you ever be the same again?


Capt. WARFEL: No.


RATHER: Will anybody who served under you there…


Capt. WARFEL: No.


RATHER: …ever be the same again?


Capt. WARFEL: No.


(Footage of Warfel; soldiers carrying stretcher; soldier; soldiers; soldier; Mejia)


RATHER: (Voiceover) Captain Warfel and 27 of his 127 men were wounded. Some lost limbs and months later are still in the hospital.  No one in the company died.  Two went AWOL.  One eventually returned to his unit and was disciplined. But Sergeant Mejia remained absent without leave.


So four and a half months you’ve been a fugitive…


Sgt. MEJIA: Yes.


RATHER: …because you broke American military law?


Sgt. MEJIA: Yes.


RATHER: There’s no doubt that–in your mind, that you broke the law?


Sgt. MEJIA: Right.


RATHER: You’re a criminal, correct?


Sgt. MEJIA: I don’t consider myself a criminal, but…


RATHER: Well, by dictionary definition, if you break the law, that’s a crime. Those who commit crimes are criminals, correct?


Sgt. MEJIA: Well, I sort of disagree because for you to break the law, the law has to be upheld.


(Footage of Mejia; photos of Mejia; photo of Mejia and children)


RATHER: (Voiceover) By that, Sergeant Mejia says he means the war in Iraq should be considered illegal.  He also says he signed a contract to serve eight years with the Army and the National Guard, and he served those eight years. Then, he says, the Army did what it’s done to thousands of soldiers and ordered him to serve more time because of the war. While he was on leave in Florida, Sergeant Mejia e-mailed Captain Warfel in Iraq, asking to be released from active duty.


You told him that you’d give him two weeks to go home.


Capt. WARFEL: Correct.


RATHER: Fair to describe you or not, that when you got that e-mail, you were hot?


Capt. WARFEL: Furious.


RATHER: Furious.  Why?


Capt. WARFEL: One, because he told me he was coming back and he didn’t. And that makes me mad.


And just that any soldier that abandons his fellow soldier in a time of war–I mean, I can’t think of anything worse.


RATHER: Did you feel betrayed?


Capt. WARFEL: Yes.


RATHER: On a personal level?


Capt. WARFEL: Correct.  Yes.


RATHER: What did your captain say to you?


Sgt. MEJIA: He pretty much said that my place of duty was there and that I was to go back immediately.  He called me a coward.


RATHER: That’s an emotionally charged word.


Sgt. MEJIA: Yes, it is.


RATHER: Are you a coward?


Sgt. MEJIA: No, I’m not.


Capt. WARFEL: I don’t know if I considered him personally a coward, but I–I consider what he did as a cowardly act, you know?


RATHER: You did then?


Capt. WARFEL: Yes.


RATHER: Do you now?


Capt. WARFEL: Yes.


RATHER: Would you trust him with your life?


Capt. WARFEL: At the beginning?


RATHER: Yes.


Capt. WARFEL: Yes.


RATHER: And as time wore on?


Capt. WARFEL: No.


RATHER: Why?


Capt. WARFEL: I started getting some vibes back from his platoon and his squad, you know, that things weren’t–things weren’t going right.  I think, you know, basically, he was just getting scared.


Sgt. MEJIA: You know, you’re on the road and a bomb goes off and you start taking fire from roof tops, it’s just automatic, you don’t even think about it, you just fire back.  And you’re afraid, but you–you just have to respond. And I–I think that–that being courageous is not just about not being afraid. I think being courageous is about doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re afraid.


(Footage of soldiers; soldier and woman hugging; soldier kissing child; soldier and family; soldier and woman kissing; girl; soldier and man; soldier and child; soldier and child; soldier and woman; soldier and woman; reunion scene; photo of Mejia and soldiers)


RATHER: (Voiceover) The Florida National Guardsmen who remained in Iraq after Sergeant Mejia went AWOL finally came home this month.  Their battalion’s extended tour of duty was over.  Unlike Mejia, they had all served 14 long, dangerous months in Iraq.  They had been shot at and ambushed.  They sometimes were given less ammunition and fewer supplies than regular troops.  They often weren’t allowed to go home when their babies were born and relatives died. But now they were back, and they did not have anything nice to say about their staff sergeant who went AWOL.


Unidentified Soldier  1: He was given a position of great responsibility, taking care of eight soldiers and their livelihood, and he let them down basically for leaving.


Unidentified Soldier  2: He was a staff sergeant, and I’m from the old school where you lead from the front.  You don’t–I mean, you tell your men to do something, you better be ready to do it, too.  And that kind of action out of a senior NCO is totally unacceptable.


Unidentified Soldier  3: What he did by leaving us over there was–was–well, is disgraceful as a soldier.


(Footage of Mejia and reporter; photo of Mejia)


RATHER: (Voiceover) But Camilo Mejia says he has never regretted his decision to go AWOL, especially, he says, when he starts thinking about the 12 or 13 Iraqis he and his men killed in Ramadi.  All of them, he says, were civilians simply caught in the cross fire, except for one 10-year-old boy with an AK-47 and one adult with a grenade.


Were you upset that you fired at him?


Sgt. MEJIA: Yes, I was upset.


RATHER: Why?  He was throwing a hand grenade at you and your men.


Sgt. MEJIA: You know, whether you want to admit it or not to yourself, this is a human being.  And I saw this man go down, and I saw him being dragged through a pool of his own blood, and that shocked me.


RATHER: But you are–you were a soldier.


Sgt. MEJIA: Yes.


RATHER: You know war is hell.  You get there, and it’s worse than you ever think it is.  Yes, he died; yes, there was blood; yes, it’s terrible, but isn’t that–or is it the way of war?


Sgt. MEJIA: Yes, you’re supposed to do that. Yes, you’re supposed to shoot at people.  You know, you–you know in your mind that if you go to a war you’re not going to be shooting at plastic targets. Nothing that you do in training prepares you for a moment like that, especially when it’s the first time that it happens.


RATHER: And when you ask yourself, which you’re bound to have, ‘For what? Why?’ what did you answer?


Sgt. MEJIA: That’s the problem, I don’t have an answer.  I don’t have a good answer.  I cannot say that I did it to help the Iraqi people.  I cannot say that it was to make America and the world safer.  I cannot say that it was for democracy.  I cannot say that it was to prevent terrorism.  I could not find a single good reason for having been there and having shot at people and having been shot at.


(Footage of Mejia; soldiers carrying casket; flag)


RATHER: (Voiceover) To many Americans, those words dishonor soldiers who’ve lived and died in Iraq, soldiers who, Captain Warfel says, did their duty, kept their discipline without asking questions.


You’ve been there, you fought the war.  Are those deaths and injuries justified?


Capt. WARFEL: It hurts me to see any soldier injured, or certainly to see anybody killed, and I saw a lot of both.  I strongly believe that we’re over there for a good reason, and I believe in liberating the people of Iraq.


(Footage of Mejia; soldier; Mejia and man)


RATHER: (Voiceover) This month Sergeant Camilo Mejia surrendered in Massachusetts with the help of the Peace Abbey, an anti-war organization.


Offscreen Voice  1: We love you!


Offscreen Voice  2: Good luck!  You’re so right!


(Footage of Mejia and man; Mejia and soldiers)


RATHER: (Voiceover) They helped arrange his transfer back to military custody.  Mejia said he was hoping for an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector, but his captain points out Mejia did not register his objections to the war or file any paperwork until after he went AWOL.


Do you think there’s any chance that he will prevail with an argument of becoming a conscientious objector?


Capt. WARFEL: You know, in today’s world, it–it could happen.  Crazy things happen in today’s world.


RATHER: What do you hope happens to him?


Capt. WARFEL: I just hope that the military justice system does right by me and by my soldiers and punishes him for what he did.


RATHER: What is the maximum punishment?


Capt. WARFEL: Actually, desertion during war time can be punished by death.


(Footage of tanks and soldiers; soldiers; Dwight Eisenhower; photo of Mejia)


RATHER: (Voiceover) The last time a deserter was executed was way back in World War II on the orders of General Dwight Eisenhower.  That’s very unlikely to happen to Sergeant Mejia, but he could go to prison.


Capt. WARFEL: I definitely believe jail time is–is more than fair.


RATHER: You know you’re going to face a harsh punishment.


Sgt. MEJIA: I know that’s a possibility.


RATHER: I think any number of people watching, listening to this who disagree with the war, perhaps, vehemently disagree with the war, are going to disagree with you on this point, which is, if you’re in uniform, you’re in the Army, it’s your duty to follow the orders until and unless you think the order is outside regulations.


Sgt. MEJIA: I have not deserted the military.  I have not been disloyal to the men and women of the military.  I have not been disloyal to a country.  I have only been loyal to my principles, and I think that gives me the right to decide not to be a part of something that I consider criminal. I realize I have a duty to the military, and I’m going to face that duty, and I’m going to face my responsibility.


RATHER: Do you hope to become a citizen now?


Sgt. MEJIA: Yes, I do.


RATHER: Do you love this country?


Sgt. MEJIA: I do.


RATHER: To someone who’s looking in and saying, ‘Well, he can’t love it very much or he wouldn’t have gone on AWOL,’ you say what?


Sgt. MEJIA: I would say this war is not about America.  This war is not about safety.  This war is not about freedom.  This war should not be paid with the blood of American soldiers.  And if I do end up paying with jail, then at least I’ll know that it was for the right decision.
(Footage of Mejia; Warfel)


RATHER: (Voiceover) And if Sergeant Mejia doesn’t go to jail, his commanding officer says, there might be an even better alternative.


Capt. WARFEL: You know, the worst punishment in the world would be sending him back to Iraq for six more months.  You know, the time he was AWOL, send him back to Iraq.  That would be great.


RATHER: Late last week, the military announced that Sergeant Mejia will face a special court martial.  If convicted, he could receive a one-year prison sentence and a bad conduct discharge.


 



 

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