A soldier who abandoned his Florida National Guard unit after serving in Iraq last year and then surrendered to military authorities two months ago was found guilty of desertion yesterday by a military court-martial in Fort Stewart, Ga.
Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, 28, who is from Miami, was sentenced to one year in prison, a bad-conduct discharge and a reduction in rank.
"I have no regrets. Not one," Mejia told jurors before they spent 20 minutes considering his sentence, the Associated Press reported. "It would be sad to go to jail. . . . But I will take it, because I will go there with my honor, knowing I have done the right thing."
A nine-year military veteran, Mejia went into hiding after returning to the United States on a two-week furlough in October. On March 15, he turned himself in to authorities at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts after a news conference in which he took the unusual step of publicly criticizing his commanding officers, who he said unnecessarily put soldiers in harm's way.
He applied for conscientious objector status, maintaining that his tour in Iraq -- which included a bloody ambush that caught civilians in the crossfire and a mix-up at a medical unit that led to the death of an Iraqi child -- had turned him against all wars. He called the Iraq conflict "oil-driven."
Mejia's attorney, Louis Font, said in an interview that his client had been ordered by commanders to deprive Iraqi prisoners at a detention facility of sleep. Font said he hoped to raise the issue upon appeal to the U.S. Army Court of Appeals.
But his commanders contended that he was a poor soldier whose unexcused absence harmed his unit, the 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment.
"We have faith in the justice system and think the outcome was fair," Lt. Col. Ron E. Tittle, a spokesman for the Florida National Guard, said yesterday.
The lead prosecutor, Capt. A.J. Balbo, said in his closing argument: "The defense says [Mejia] accomplished all his missions. Except the most important one -- showing up."
Font told jurors the soldier believed that "because he had become a conscientious objector, he would not be required to serve in Iraq anymore."
Font, a West Point graduate and conscientious objector to the Vietnam War who specializes in military law, said his client should have been discharged a year ago under a National Guard regulation that limits the amount of time noncitizens can serve to eight years.
Born in Nicaragua, Mejia is a permanent U.S. resident but not a U.S. citizen. He has a young daughter and was set to graduate from the University of Miami when he was called to duty in Iraq. Mejia's conscientious objector application is being processed in a separate proceeding.
According to the Army, 1,076 soldiers deserted their units between October 2003 and March of this year, fewer than during the same period a year ago.