“By putting my weapon down, I chose to reassert myself as a human being. I have not deserted the military or been disloyal to the men and women of the military. I have not been disloyal to a country. I have only been loyal to my principles.” So wrote Sgt. Camilo Mejia days after his release from prison after refusing to return to Iraq. Mejia was the first in a long line of Iraq war veterans to file for conscientious objector status, and his water-colored portrait is one of six currently hanging at Bernice’s Bakery as part of the exhibit “Veteran Voices,” by social justice activist and Missoula native Melissa Bangs.
“Refusing and resisting this war was my moral duty, a moral duty that called me to take a principled action,” Mejia wrote in “Regaining my Humanity”—a personal statement published and circulated widely on the Internet. “I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier.”
Mejia was sentenced to one year in prison in May 2004, but was released after nine months for good behavior.
It is these soldiers’ transformation from being obedient American servicemen to discovering a stronger human connection during their experiences in war that first gave Bangs the inspiration for the show.
In December, Bangs began contacting men and women who had signed up for the military, who early in their careers were willing to put their lives on the line, but who now were ready to go to jail, lose pay, face intimidation and possibly be dishonorably discharged for their refusal to fight in a war they came to believe was illegal and senseless.
“I was really moved by their transformation and by their change,” Bangs says. “And I was also moved to hear that there were thousands of resisters from this war.” (Since the war began in March 2003, more than 6,000 American soldiers have filed for conscientious objector status.)
In Bangs’ mind, Mejia’s story coincided with President Bush’s re-election, whereupon she was devastated. She began searching for a way to break through the silence and lies coming from the current administration and propagated by the mass media, she says.
“These are the voices that the people who are believing Fox News may just be willing to listen to,” Bangs explains. “I also thought, ‘Who better equipped to talk about what is really going on there than the folks who have been over there and seen it themselves?’”
Among the pensive faces staring out from the walls at Bernice’s is the weary countenance of Bozeman resident and Montana National Guardsman Scott Service—the sole Montanan in Veteran Voices. The artwork is based on a photograph taken of Service while he was stationed in Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, about 40 miles from Baghdad. During his 15-month tour of duty in Iraq, Service was assigned to aviation maintenance and worked on helicopters. Camp Anaconda, he says, was heavily under attack the whole time he was there.
“The year we were in Iraq we were mortared over 800 times and we had numerous car bombings at the front gate. There was an explosion that took out half of the BX—which is where we buy our necessities to live—and that particular explosion killed a 21-year-old soldier who was a week from going home to see his wife. And the only reason he was there was to buy shaving cream. To me that’s pretty senseless.”
The 33-year-old New Englander moved out west 10 years ago and joined the Montana National Guard in 2000. He was notified of his deployment to Iraq in November 2003.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t done anything like it before, it was completely new territory. It was a war zone. I didn’t have any information as far as what Iraq was like.”
Before his deployment, Service underwent basic army training—making sure you’re proficient with your rifle, making sure you’re proficient with first-aid techniques, he says—but as far as actually going to Iraq, there was very little preparation.
“I’m not sure how much the people I was working with really knew. We really didn’t know what the hell we were getting into.”
He thought about the culture in Iraq and wanted to explore that aspect of the experience and try to understand where Iraqis were coming from—their ethics and their morals, their values—but, he says, that aspect of his mission quickly atrophied as he discovered he would have little contact with Iraqi culture.
“After a while, to be honest, because of our frustrations and because of the high stress we were under, a lot of us didn’t even care. It’s awful to say, because you should care about the other culture and understand where these people are coming from. I didn’t really even want to know about these people that much. And I feel very badly about that, but that was the attitude in a lot of ways.”
Service’s disillusionment with the war and the American occupation of Iraq only grew stronger as his time there continued. “A lot of us were really confused as to why we were there,” he says. “I also started thinking how America just charged in, bombing right in and destroying a country and then saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we can rebuild this in no time, democracy is the best,’ without any regard to the culture whatsoever. I can’t agree with that ethically. I also strongly disapprove of violence, and there was an awful lot of violence over there, and a lot of it didn’t make sense.”
The values that Service came to rely on—such as the futility of war, the ineffectiveness of violence and his regard for human life—both Iraqi and American—over profits and power evolved over a period of time through his direct witness of events, and through deep thinking and self-reflection, he says.
Since returning to the States, Service says he has experienced bouts of depression and “huge periods of self-evaluation and reflection on things.” This reflection is what caused him to speak out against the war and to devote energy to educating his fellow Montanans about the realities on the ground in Iraq, and the subtle and not so subtle effects of violence and stress on the actual soldiers fighting the war.
“When you’re aiming your rifle at somebody and you realize that they have a family and that they have a life, too, it’s really life-changing. When you actually grasp the situation, and you start to really think about it, it’s quite scary. It makes you reevaluate why you’re there and what you’re doing. And the consequences…you really have to consider how that’s going to affect your life for a tremendously long time. You have to deal with these things on a daily basis. It’s not the movies, let’s put it that way.”
In the months since he returned from Iraq, Service says he’s been dismayed by the war coverage he sees in newspapers and on broadcast media. “You never hear anymore about Halliburton or KBR or any of those major contractors working over there and making a ton of money off of the war at the expense of a lot of pain and suffering, both on the Iraqi side and the American side,” he says, comparing the Iraq war to the Vietnam war as very much a “politician’s war.” And like the Vietnam war, Service sees the Iraq war as the cause of irreparable damage to the soldiers and their families for many years to come.
“America is breeding a whole new generation of veterans, and it’s going to have lots of effects on American society,” he says. “These people are going to have to rebuild their lives, and that’s what I’m in the process of doing. And it’s tough.”
Veteran Voices is on display at Bernice’s Bakery through June.