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Camilo's Retreat

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On June 14, 2004, Amnesty International's secretary general, Irene Khan, sent President George W. Bush a letter requesting that the commander in chief release Camilo. Earlier that week, the human rights organization had declared him a prisoner of conscience. The letter cited Camilo's accounts of participating in prisoner abuse and killing civilians as reasons to free this son of Nicaraguan revolutionaries. "While recognizing that Camilo went [AWOL]," Khan wrote, "Amnesty International considers that he did take reasonable steps to secure his discharge legally that Camilo has genuinely conscientious grounds for his objections to the war."

Camilo's time in jail was not altogether bad. "I would get tons of mail," he says. "Most of the people in military prison are not afraid of speaking out, so being a deserter earned me a lot of respect."

Maritza Castillo traveled from Miami to the small Oklahoma town at least four times. She was amazed at the support shown to her son. "It was very inspirational," she notes. "They had set up vigils outside the prison with banners in favor of Camilo and candles at the entrance."

The hardest moment during Camilo's incarceration was the time his then-3-year-old daughter came to visit during the sixth month of his lockup. That day, she was wearing a light-color summer dress and sandals. Her shoulder-length brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. They spent about two hours together. When it was time to leave, she didn't want to go. "Daddy, can't I sleep here on the sofa?" she asked. "Can't I stay so we can play again tomorrow?"

When she left, Camilo says, it was "like she belonged to a different world, a place I could not enter. That was the first time I truly felt like a prisoner."

On February 15, 2005, Camilo was freed three months early for good behavior. His mother, his aunt, his stepdad, and his daughter joined local activists to meet him when he walked out of the prison gates. They all — about a dozen people — drove to a church in Oklahoma City, where Camilo lunched on pasta and drank a glass of red wine.

Camilo was the first soldier to go AWOL and publicly protest the war, but many others followed him. There were 2,450 deserters in 2004, according to Army statistics released in early April. The number rose to about 2,700 in 2005 and 3,300 last year. Since the fiscal year began this past October 1, 871 soldiers have deserted. The military has also amped up its prosecution of deserters. From 2002 to 2006, prosecutions have more than doubled to an average of 390 per year.

On July 28, 2005, Camilo returned to Fort Stewart, the site of his court-martial, to support Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who also was convicted of deserting the war. Since last year, Camilo has also sat on the board of directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War. He has criss-crossed the country sharing his story at rallies and vigils, including one this past March 24 at FIU's north campus commemorating the Iraq occupation's fourth anniversary.

He's also appealing his conviction on grounds that he is a conscientious objector. The military defines the term as someone whose beliefs don't allow him or her to kill other human beings. "I definitely question his timing on becoming a conscientious objector," Naugle opines. "If he was really antiwar, then why didn't he declare himself before we deployed?"

Jason Thomas, another Charlie Company soldier, adds: "Every soldier fighting the current war willingly signed himself over to the U.S. military. As vehement an antiwar activist as he is, Camilo did the same thing. So it irks me that some people treat him and others like him as martyrs."

Even soldiers who supported him acknowledge they resented Camilo for not coming back. "There were a lot of us who didn't agree with the way he handled things," Oliver Perez offers. "But I wouldn't call him a coward."

Camilo admits that the hardest part of his decision to desert the war was leaving his fellow soldiers behind. "These people are my brothers regardless if I didn't agree with what we were doing," he says. "The type of bond that we formed in that type of environment is just so strong. So when you develop that bond and then the other person doesn't want anything to do with you, it's painful. It is like your brother telling you, 'I don't ever want to talk to you again. '"

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.

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