Dallas Morning News
By GRETEL C. KOVACH
IRVING – Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia spent nine months in a military prison for refusing to return to his National Guard unit at war in Iraq.
Sgt. Mejia, the first Iraq combat veteran to file for conscientious-objector status, was treated well at the Fort Sill prison in Oklahoma. Soldiers still ask to shake his hand.
"I felt like I had spoken for a lot of people," said Sgt. Mejia, 29, of Miami. "A lot of soldiers are against the war."
Sgt. Mejia will lead a workshop today on war resistance at the annual Veterans for Peace National Convention, held this year at the University of Dallas. The conference continues through Sunday and is open to the public.
Sgt. Mejia's tour in Iraq turned him into a pacifist.
Lance Cpl. Michael Hoffman, a former Marine Corps artilleryman, still believes war can be justified in some cases.
Iraq is not one of them, he said.
"We have done more harm than good, easily," said Mr. Hoffman, who advanced with the initial invasion into Baghdad. "For every school we help rebuild, we destroy two. For every terrorist we catch, we make two more."
Many troops serving in Iraq say they strongly believe they are fighting a just and necessary war.
But speakers at the Veterans for Peace conference said the stench of rotting bodies, the desroyed cities and innocent blood spilled amid international condemnation of the U.S. invasion of Iraq had changed them forever.
"If people understood what we are really doing, this war would be over tomorrow," said Mr. Hoffman, a co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Retired U.S. Navy pilot John Porth appreciated the message.
"We're overwhelmed by propaganda," said Mr. Porth, who arrived from New Jersey for the conference. The veteran of World War II and Korea said he was a hawk once but no more.
"Sometimes I'm called unpatriotic because I'm anti-war. But I can't see sending your children and my children into an unjust war," he said.
Gordon Soderberg, a former Navy medic, drove a red, white and blue school bus of West Coast veterans to the conference.
The "Impeachment Tour" bus has an upside-down flag painted on it in the international distress symbol.
"They've taken us to war for false reasons," he said, explaining these veterans' campaign to impeach President Bush.
"The misleading of the public, the Congress, the United Nations, these are acts of treason that need to be investigated."
Speaker Cindy Sheehan is the mother of Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq last year. She is leading a carpool from the convention to President Bush's Crawford, Texas, home on Saturday to demand that the president honor those who had died in Iraq by bringing remaining troops home.
Sgt. Mejia said it was painful to leave his unit, which he considered family. But he never regretted his decision.
At the conference, he met American veterans of wars through the generations. A survivor of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Japan, also is speaking at the conference.
"Having to kill somebody, knowing in my heart I was against the war, going to prison didn't compare," Sgt. Mejia said. "There was no greater damage that could be done to your soul."
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IF YOU GO
What: Annual Veterans for Peace national convention
When: Through Sunday; open to the public
Where: University of Dallas in Irving
Schedule and fees: 314-725-6005;
LINK TO ORIGINAL