Camilo's Retreat

He left the war behind to enter a whole new controversy

The real problem was that Camilo lost the will to fight, Warfel contends. "He was scared. We were in the most dangerous city in Iraq. There were always grumblings about the missions we did."

Naugle agrees: "Camilo's casting unfair blame. There was no way to accomplish that mission without closing the streets off."

During the third week of September 2003, Camilo approached Warfel about ending his military service. He pointed out that he had fulfilled his contract four months earlier and that his U.S. residency was about to expire. By federal law, he said, he should be discharged.

From left: On May 21, 2004, two military police officers led Camilo away in handcuffs following his conviction on desertion charges.
From left: On May 21, 2004, two military police officers led Camilo away in handcuffs following his conviction on desertion charges.
Camilo sits on boxes of correspondence, hundreds of letters he received from supporters while imprisoned at Fort Sill, in Oklahoma.
Jacqueline Carini
Camilo sits on boxes of correspondence, hundreds of letters he received from supporters while imprisoned at Fort Sill, in Oklahoma.

But Warfel didn't approve. Instead, he accused Camilo of cowardice and allowed him a two-week leave. Before signing the papers, though, Warfel asked Camilo to pledge he would return. "I remember it like it was yesterday," Warfel says. "He looked me dead in the eyes and promised me he was coming back."

At the time, National Guard soldiers rarely got leave. "Camilo was bumped to the top of the list because he said he was going to take care of his green card issues," a seething Naugle says. "To take that slot away from another soldier and abuse it the way he did is unforgivable."

Camilo jumped on a convoy truck headed for Baghdad International Airport, where he boarded a C-130 transport plane. That was the last time he saw Iraq.

On October 4, 2003, Camilo arrived at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport and took a cab to his mother's apartment in Sunny Isles Beach. "When I opened the door and saw him, I just hugged him for as long as I can remember," Castillo says. "I was just so happy to see him in one piece."

The following morning, Camilo saw his daughter for the first time in nine months. "I was scared," Camilo says. "I had changed. I asked myself how could I be a good father knowing I had abused prisoners and killed innocents."

During the next few days, Camilo couldn't sleep. There was the Al Asad prison camp, the ambush outside Ar Ramadi, the dead teenager with the grenade, the child standing next to his headless father's body. He didn't want to return. "There were so many issues going through my head," Camilo says. "Even though I had no doubts I was fighting an immoral war, I kept thinking about the guys in my unit. Didn't I have a duty to lead them?"

More than anything, Camilo was afraid of the consequences if he went AWOL. "I was afraid of going to jail," he insists. "I was afraid I would never see my daughter again."

Camilo even feared he would be executed. "I was terrified," he continues. "I felt it would be the end of my life. And I certainly didn't want to be known as a coward."

On October 16, 2003, Camilo was supposed to have been on a plane back to Iraq. Instead, he stayed in bed. Within a week, he went underground, traveling to New York City to meet with a soldiers' rights organization called Citizen Soldier, where he began to lay the groundwork for his surrender.

Through Citizen Soldier, Camilo met Louis Font, a Puerto Rican West Point graduate who had openly refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Font had faced 25 years in prison, and during his one-year trial, he accused Army generals of war crimes against the Vietnamese population. In the end, Font was honorably discharged. Now, during the next five months, Font assisted Camilo in preparing for his eventual court-martial.

On March 15, 2004, on the first anniversary of the Iraq War, Camilo came out of hiding. The former soldier and about ten family members gathered at Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts, outside Boston. The 21-year-old countryside retreat was founded by a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. After a Mass, throngs of television and print journalists congregated at the abbey's entrance for a news conference.

Camilo announced that he would apply for conscientious objector status. "It didn't seem like it was a big sacrifice anymore," Camilo says. "There are so many people who are suffering in Iraq; more than 50,000 dead since the invasion. What is one person going to jail if it can make a difference and help end this war? But it took a long time to get to that point and say it is not that big a deal if I go to jail."

His father, Carlos Mejía Godoy, who rarely visits the United States, stood nearby. "What my son did was very special," he says. "He did not run away. He didn't disappear. He accepted his fate and took his punishment."

After the news conference concluded, Camilo and Font drove to Hanscom Air Force Base, 20 minutes away, where the ex-staff sergeant surrendered to two military policemen. He was then transported to the National Guard Armory in North Miami. Two days later, Camilo was in Fort Stewart, Georgia, preparing for a court-martial.

During the proceedings that followed, the military judge did not allow Camilo's defense team to call expert witnesses. The defendant was also denied the opportunity to present his allegations of prisoner abuse and other war crimes as the basis for his refusal to rejoin the war.

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