Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, 28, of Miami, joined the Army in 1995. Following a three-year hitch with the Army, he joined the Florida National Guard partly because he was promised college tuition assistance. Mejia had moved to the U.S. with his mother from Nicaragua at age 18.

Mejia’s Guard unit was deployed to Iraq in April 2003. In the following months, Mejia saw the horrors of war, forcing him to weigh his military duty vs. his conscience.

Mejia became one of 600 soldiers counted as AWOL when he didn’t return from home leave. On March 15, Mejia spoke at a rally near Boston, then turned himself in to military authorities. Mejia is applying for conscientious objector status, the first Iraq war veteran to publicly refuse further military service.

Below are excerpts from Mejia’s words, published by Citizen Soldier. To support Mejia and read his full story, go to www.citizen-soldier.org or call (212) 679-2250. You can also write to Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee, Pentagon, Washington, D.C. 22202. Tell him why you support refusers like Sgt. Mejia, and urge the Army not to bring criminal charges against him or other objectors.

On May 30, my squad was ambushed for the first time in the eastern part of Ar Ramadi. We heard a whistle as we passed an area that was notorious for bombed out buildings. Next, a bomb exploded in the road in front of our lead Humvee. Prior to this attack I had briefed my squad on what I understood to be Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which was that if we were ambushed we should “haul ass” while returning fire with our weapons. Following the blast, bullets rained down on us from rooftops on both sides of the road as we drove out of the area.

Back at the base, we were euphoric that no one had been hurt in the ambush. My commander, XO, and 1st Sgt. immediately asked to be briefed. … [T]hey asked me why we had fled rather than staying and fighting. I told them that it was SOP to try and drive out of an ambush. They agreed, but [said] we had just sent the wrong message to our attackers because our mission is not to run from the enemy – but to kill them. The next morning our commander passed down word that in the future we should not celebrate our “failures.” …

It dawned on me that protecting our troops didn’t rank very high on our leaders’ agenda. Medals, glory, and “sending the right message” were all worth the lives of a few soldiers. This was more complicated than I imagined. Not only did we have to be careful with the enemy but we also had to be careful with our own leaders too. …

When I saw with my own eyes what war can do to people, a real change began to take place within me. I have witnessed the suffering of a people whose country is in ruins and who are further humiliated by the raids, patrols, curfews of an occupying army. My experience of this war has changed me forever.

One of our sergeants shot a small boy who was carrying an AK-47 rifle. The other two children who were walking with him ran away as the wounded child began crawling for his life. A second shot stopped him, but he was still alive. When an Iraqi tried to take him to a civilian hospital, Army medics from our unit intercepted him and insisted on taking the injured boy to a military facility. There, he was denied medical care because a different unit was supposed to treat our unit’s wounded. After another medical unit refused to treat the child, he died. …

I also learned that the fear of dying has the power to turn soldiers into real killing machines. In a combat environment it becomes almost impossible for us to consider things like acting strictly in self-defense or using just enough force to stop an attack.

Going home on leave in October 2003 provided me with the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say. People would ask me about my war experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors – the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood, the time a man was decapitated by our machine gun fire and the time my friend shot a child through the chest.

Coming home gave me the clarity to see the line between military duty and moral obligation. My feelings against the war dictated that I could no longer be a part of it. Acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military and by putting my weapon down I chose to reassert myself as a human being.