By Rachel Stern

For Camilo Mejía, the military used to be black-and-white. During his eight years of service, he did what he was told. If he didn’t like it, he did it anyway.

“They don’t train you to think in the military,” said Mejía, a former U.S. sergeant in Iraq turned conscientious objector. “They simply turn you into an automatic tool.”

Mejía told the story of his ideological transformation to audience members — many of them veterans themselves — at St. Joseph’s Church in Berkeley last Friday. Following his speech was another by Pablo Paredes, who, in 2005, refused to ship out from San Diego Navel Station and support the Iraq war. Paredes cited Mejía as his inspiration.

Both men’s speeches culminated the Courage to Resist tour that hit college campuses, community centers, and churches across Northern California. They also served to promote Mejía’s new book, Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejía.

Mejía, a former staff sergeant to the Florida National Guard, spent six months of “blind obedience” in Iraq, he said, before returning to the United States for a two-week furlough.

“It wasn’t really until I came here that the pieces came together,” Mejía told City on a Hill Press (CHP) from behind his book signing table.

During his time at a Prisoner of War (POW) camp, Mejía felt disturbed by what he saw, but “kept it all inside,” he said, adding that only three of the 33 people his unit who were killed were armed.

“When I returned home and found myself in a position where my life wasn’t in danger every second, I was able to contemplate these things,” said Mejía, who was a few months away from ending his five-and-a-half-year military contract when he dropped out.

He spoke solemnly of keeping prisoners sleep-deprived for three days at a time — whether it was through constantly shaking their narrow walls with a sledgehammer or loading a pistol before holding it firmly to their head, and making them “believe they were about to be shot.”

“We go out there with the idea that we’re going to find an enemy,” he said, “and here we have ordinary people being captured for no good reason.”

After refusing to rejoin the military and filing for conscientious objector status, he was charged with desertion and sentenced to a year in prison at the Fort Sill military prison in Lawton, OK.

Many people claim he was lucky; under Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, desertion at a time of war can lead to a death sentence.

While he was behind bars, international praise flowed in. Amnesty International recognized Mejía as a “prisoner of conscience,” and Refuse and Resist presented him its Courageous Resister Award.

Since his release from prison on Feb. 15, 2005, he has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, speaking frequently to the press and at numerous peace protests.“I was politically against it from the beginning, but I was too afraid to say no,” he said.

Paredes took the pulpit after Mejía, testifying that Mejía’s moral stance influenced his own objection to the war.

“You want to believe that you kill for a noble purpose,” he said, expressing sympathy to the soldiers who fight in Iraq.

Paredes, who devoted himself to speaking to high schools — particularly those in rural communities — and counseling those thinking of filing for objector status, said joining the military, for many students, often simply equates to “college money and independence.”

Approximately 60 soldiers file for conscientious objector status every year,a miniscule number compared to the one million soldiers on duty or serving in the National Reserves.

In 2004, 30 soldiers were approved for conscientious objector status, and 30 were denied. In 2005, the numbers stood at 23 approved and 38 denied. In 2006, however, 33 were approved and only nine were denied.

After the speeches, James Janko, a former Vietnam combat medic and current member of Veterans for Peace, said both men’s talks drew parallels with his own experiences.

“I was impressed with their strength of character and insight,” he told CHP.

Jennifer Lee, an Oakland resident, squeezed through the small post-speech crowd that had gathered around the speakers and, like the others, chimed in with wide-eyed admiration.

“I’m not any more convinced that the War in Iraq is wrong,” she told CHP before exiting the arched church doors. “Hearing them speak has made me especially aware that actions as individuals can make a difference.”