A Tale of Two 'Heroes'

Oklahoma Gazette | March 23, 2005
Army reservist Ed Pulido can feel a palpable weight on his left side, a weight as heavy as flesh, but without the warmth. There’s a little stiffness, but Pulido still exudes strength. It shows in the way he stands patiently and greets people. It shows in his gait, which still has that almost clocklike deliberation expected from a military man. It even shows in his smile.

It’s hard to tell Pulido wears a prosthesis to replace the leg lost when an improvised explosive device (IED) tore through the black SUV he was driving while relocating from Taji, Iraq, to a Kirkush training base. The blow has left Pulido a few reminders of that August 2004 day: phantom pains, a red- white-and-blue artificial limb and a re-examination of life.

“I wear my leg proudly. I put a flag on my leg as a symbol of my patriotism and freedom that we have here. Anytime that somebody asks what happened or what’s wrong, I don’t hesitate to tell people and that I’m happy that I did (serve),” said Pulido, a major with Fort Sill’s 75th Division.

“If I had the opportunity to go back and have my real leg and go back and do what I was doing, I think I could make a bigger difference, and all the soldiers think that way.”

Pulido sees the war as having a positive impact on Iraq and soldiers as difference-makers by rebuilding the Middle Eastern country. His is one perspective of the United States’ occupation.

Camilo Mejia, the staff sergeant who fled his unit after nearly five months in Iraq and then went into hiding, casts the war in a different light. In late May 2004, the military doled out a guilty verdict to Mejia on the grounds of desertion. The Florida National Guardsman, the first Iraq war veteran to refuse further military service, was stripped of his staff-sergeant rank, down to a private, and sentenced to one year of imprisonment at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill Regional Correctional Facility, the toughest punishment he could get. He was released Feb. 15.

Regardless of the outcome, Mejia said he needed to obey himself, his own principles and morals, and not his commanding officers. Breaking the law wasn’t his intention, he said, but he saw the occupation as being more about oil and less about democracy.

“I didn’t want to be a part of that war,“ Mejia told Oklahoma Gazette after his release, “and that was my duty as a soldier to be a part of that war. … From the military’s point of view, from the point of view of my leaders, that was my duty and I disobeyed that because I had a higher authority to obey.”

In his acceptance letter for receiving the Catholic Peace Fellowship’s St. Marcellus Award in October 2004, Mejia wrote from prison: “When the sounds of battle are gone, the sounds of one’s conscience take over. And my conscience is the place where I meet with God. I don’t need an angel to descend from heaven to tell me what God wants me to do; all I have to do is listen to my conscience and do what I know in my heart is the right thing.”

Interestingly, those two perspectives of the war match the views of the nation, a country divided more than ever over the Iraq conflict, with a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showing a nearly 50-50 split among respondents about whether the United States should have invaded Iraq — compare that with a nearly 75 percent approval rating exactly two years ago, at the war’s beginning in March 2003. >>>

‘Great soldiers’

The differences between Pulido and Mejia are stark in terms of their perspectives on the U.S. involvement in Iraq. But there are striking similarities. Both men are or were leaders in the reserves, both have young daughters and both spent about two years away from their families due to various military commitments. Both men show a feeling of conviction of the righteousness of their actions. Both are steered by faith.

Despite deserting his unit, Mejia doesn’t always walk beneath the weight of grim faces, scorning him for his opposition to the war. Peace advocates, as well as those who view the war with skepticism, have more than embraced him for standing up for his convictions.

At an Oklahoma City press conference last summer, former Marine and military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, argued that Mejia is one of the “great soldiers” at Fort Sill, although he objects to the war.

“He’s definitely someone who is willing to sacrifice his own freedom to come out openly to state his opposition to the war,” said Ellsberg, who has declared Mejia a “hero.” “He could have left the country, he could have kept his head down like many others are doing, and that’s the message that the military clearly wants to muffle, lest other people hear it and be inspired by it. I’ve been inspired by it personally.”

Inspiration can be seen in Oklahoma, too. Oklahoma Committee for Conscientious Objectors, a group whose mission is to provide support and information to conscientious objectors or would-be COs, began in May 2004, right before Mejia’s sentence was announced. James Branum, an Oklahoma City University law student who co-chairs the group, said that once it was common knowledge that Mejia would be incarcerated in Oklahoma, the group became active in his case. OCCO’s main work is in counter-recruitment education, but it is preparing to do military counseling, with a hotline number for such assistance in the works for the summer. Branum said Mejia helped to raise awareness about conscientious objectors.

“Because he is such an articulate man, he could explain why his conscience compelled him to do what he did,” Branum said.

Pulido’s convictions have been equally embraced, and his devout service, for which he risked life and limb, has been rewarded with praise and honors — the Purple Heart for his valor and the American Red Cross’ Heroes Award for his contribution to the community.

Marisa Valdez, community relations coordinator for the American Red Cross of Central Oklahoma, said the Heroes Award honors “the countless men, women and children that put others before self, making positive deposits into our society on a daily basis.” Only six individuals received the honor at the March 3 ceremony, she said, noting that the nominations spanned five counties.

Pulido is by nature a motivator, whether he realizes it or not. In Iraq, he motivated troops and also encouraged them to, in turn, motivate Iraqis to take ownership of the rebuilding process. But Pulido doesn’t have to be in a war zone to inspire others.

Fort Sill Maj. Gen. David Valcourt and the base’s behavioral health department asked Pulido to provide a perspective of how to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Pulido, who suffers from PTSD, said the Army has been proactive in dealing with the emotional toll of war. He also is a peer visitor, talking to soldiers returning from combat who, too, have lost limbs: “To me, it’s sad, but it’s also inspirational to see those soldiers light up and understand that they have a life,” Pulido said.

“There are people that do struggle and they have a different outlook than I do,” Pulido added. “I went into it (the war) with the fact that I am going into a combat zone, but I am going over there to make a difference.”

Shock and awe

Mejia, 29, who holds duel citizenship in Nicaragua and Costa Rica and is a permanent legal U.S. resident, believes he, too, can make a difference. He sees himself as a voice for the peace movement, as a voice for passive resistance.

Mejia served in the Florida National Guard for more than eight years — entering the reserves in May 1995. When he was called up for duty, Mejia was a senior psychology student at the University of Miami, working as a research adviser and looking to gain entry into a doctoral program. His unit, the 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, got some combat training in Fort Stewart, Ga., prior to mobilization and then was shipped off to the Middle East in April 2003. Mejia was stationed in the hot combat zone of the Sunni Triangle.

It was during a two-week furlough in late September/early October 2003 that Mejia said he began to look at the war in a more philosophical light and, consequently, wrote a 55-page application declaring himself a conscientious objector. He was incognito for five months, steering clear of family and friends so he would not be traced.

Mejia’s objections to the war include accusations of ill treatment of Iraqi prisoners; the military’s lack of concern for troops’ welfare; the deployment of troops who didn’t pass necessary exams; unwarranted killing of Iraqis; differing treatment between reserves and active-duty soldiers, which Mejia said resulted in substandard equipment for reservists — the list goes on.

“When I came home and I had time to think about it, I asked myself, ‘What am I fighting for?’ And it all pointed to oil and corporate interests and corporate greed. How do you deal with that? How do you conciliate yourself with that idea? It’s really hard,” Mejia said. “You grow frustrated, you grow scared. It’s just the nature of war. You’re being threatened every minute of your life: You’re being mortared. … You’re just a moving target. The fact that you have an American flag on your shoulder makes you a perfect target, and that’s on top of the occupation and on top of poverty and on top of no power, no lights, no employment, the humiliation that comes with being occupied. How do you sit down and think in terms of philosophical questioning of a war and its morality and its justification? The only thing you want to do is get out alive and make sure that your friends get out alive, that you see your family.”

His desertion led to a stiff penalty: Aside from prison and the reduction in rank, Mejia had to forfeit two-thirds of his pay for one year and received a bad-conduct discharge. The pay is a sticking point since Mejia claims to have not received a dime, money that would have gone to pay for his daughter’s child support.

But, the biggest penalty of all, he said, was not seeing his daughter, who is 4.

Mejia said he didn’t figure his life’s script would take him from a “pseudo-Bohemian student at Starbucks” to a squadron leader in a combat zone to “washing dishes in a military prison.” He’s still grasping that trajectory.

“The experience is so huge and so incredible that I’m having trouble understanding it,” Mejia said. “Some people want me to write a book about my war experience and some people want me to write a book about my jail experience, but I don’t think you can sit down and write about it anytime. I think you got to come to terms with a lot of your feelings and really understand your experience. I don’t think I have a whole message or whole list of things of how I’ve changed because of jail or war. I think that one of the things I see that (is) different now in my life is being more involved with the world and being more involved in the (antiwar) movement, and, as far as prison, I learned a lot about humility. … I lived a very comfortable life and I never thought that I would be at the very bottom again.”

Mejia said he is considering counseling conscientious objectors, or potential COs, although that’s not to say if Mejia could do it all over again, he would go about it in the same way. On the contrary, Mejia said he would not be so arrogant as to think he had learned nothing from his time in prison. The biggest thing he would change is to not have joined the reserves in the first place, he said.

The experience, itself, has prompted his aunt, Norma Castillo, to make a documentary about war resisters. Her first subject? Nephew Camilo. Castillo is a filmmaker, albeit usually dealing in short fiction films, mostly dramas. She also doesn’t typically deal with subjects so close to her heart. She said that at one point in filming, she turned the camera over to a friend because she was shaking with emotion. For the documentary titled “Crusade of Conscience: Iraq War Resisters Speak Out” — a preliminary version of which other filmmakers screened March 12 in New York — she also interviewed Brandon Hughey, an Army soldier who went AWOL by seeking refuge in Canada, and Jimmy Massey, a former Marine who has spoken against the war.

“I have three different perspectives: one (Hughey) who had to fly away to escape from persecution and be away from his life here, so he’s in Canada; and Jimmy Massey, who came back from Iraq but is suffering medically because he is suffering from PTSD; and, of course, Camilo, who decided not to go back and go to prison for that. So, three different stories in one war.”

There is another story, another perspective, about the war that won’t make it into a film about war resisters, and it’s the one about Ed Pulido.

Rebuilding Iraq

Pulido’s mission in Iraq was to work with the new Iraqi army — to train, to equip and to prepare Iraqis to provide security for their own country. The call to arms reminded the United Way employee as to why he signed up in the first place.

“I serve, No. 1, because this is the greatest country in the world. I serve my country in the military and anytime I’m called up, that’s why. It’s not just because I’m patriotic and (because of) freedom. All those words resonate, but the bottom line is my country is the best country in the world and I want to make it the best,” said Pulido, 36, a Puerto Rico native whose father and brother served in the military. “… I’m a Hispanic American. For me, this country gave me all the opportunities and desires, and anything that I wanted to achieve, I could. For me, to be able to have ownership of a home and to have a vehicle to drive, I don’t take any of the things I have around me for granted. And I know sometimes we do, but I will never, ever in my life take things for granted again.”

Pulido saw firsthand, although not directly involved, the plans for improving the infrastructure for the Iraqi people — the rebuilding of schools and mosques, the providing of potable water. And Iraqis aided in the reconstruction efforts, he added.

“Seeing what the people were like and how they treated us, and at times we felt that maybe some were not as appreciative as others, and I like to be honest about that, but all in all, I think what we have to look forward to is that those children — if we’re able to model good relations with them and provide goodwill, we can achieve success,” he said.

The 18-year veteran of the reserves, who first was stationed in Taji, said soldiers often would go out to visit children, handing them candy or even items from care packages. He saved pictures of such exchanges.

“Sometimes I just sit back and reflect a little bit, and I look at that and say, ‘I know we did a good job,’” Pulido said.

The children seem to touch Pulido most. In his Oklahoma City house filled with boxes in preparation for his impending move, Pulido points to a small plastic desk, one used by his now-3 1/2-year-old daughter, that sits in the shadows of a green recliner. Of the images he carried with him to Iraq, the desk had its place, a subtle reminder of how important the future can be.

“They opened up a school right where we were at in Taji and I was fortunate to go with some of the people from the base and see that they delivered books to the kids; they delivered crayons and coloring books and pencils and paper. To see those kids and to see a little, small desk like my little girl has there,” Pulido said, pointing to the small rectangular writing surface, “... and I looked at that desk and could see my little girl sitting there, to me hit my viewpoint as to the reasons why we’re there and that we now have to do goodwill in order to improve the conditions of that country.”

By doing “goodwill” in Iraq, Pulido said he believes other countries in the region will follow its lead. He’s adamant that the goal of the war is good. Reconstruction efforts, he said, are strongly supported by the troops, even if they’re on the fence about other aspects of the war. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll affirms Pulido’s claim, with 67 percent of respondents saying they believe “the Iraqi people are better off as a result of the war, and 74 percent think they’ll be better off in the future,” even if they question the war, according to United Press International.

Signs of progress already exist, Pulido said. Aside from increased entrepreneurship among Iraqis, he said the elections also show the positive impact of the war and give him pause for reflection.

“You know, I lost a leg, but no matter what, I have my life and those people have a life, and for them to have that stamp on their hands symbolized the sacrifices that us 1,500 (who have been killed) — and there’s over 14,000 of us wounded ... that there are times you have to sacrifice,” Pulido said.

Life ahead

Rebuilding a country is one thing; rebuilding a life is quite another.

Back home in Florida, Mejia tries to juggle an interview while riding along with his mother, Maritza Castillo, occasionally answering her questions in Spanish, even breaking a thought with a cautioning, “We’re in a school zone now,” to keep her speed in check — only he accidentally says it in English, and she doesn’t quite heed his message. “My mom is making me a little nervous,” he jokes.

Norma Castillo said her nephew is soaking in the streets and people of Miami, learning anew what had been old hat before.

“I don’t think ‘normal’ has been what it used to be — it’s never going to be an option again. I think I’m changed, but I welcome that,” Mejia said. “Slowly, I’m beginning to see the shape of what my life is going to become.”

His life is one often invaded by the media, which prompts Mejia to try to disguise himself with baseball caps or elude cameras by taking back doors and less-traveled detours. Mejia may have supporters, but, at home, in Miami, a city where most of his reserves unit hails, he has plenty of detractors.

“It’s amazing, I guess because of my experience and the message that I have, people all over the U.S. and the world think that I have something important to say,” Mejia said. “But here at home, whenever something comes out, you have all kinds of people rebutting everything, saying what a shame this guy is. So, it’s kind of like what Jesus said, that you cannot be a prophet in your own hometown. I mean, I don’t consider myself a prophet, but there seems to be a lot of resistance to the idea that I have something to say here in Miami.”

Pulido, too, is seeing the shape of his life, one that also changed on the front lines. He doesn’t look at the future in terms of limitations, although Pulido knows there will be some.

“I still tell myself, ‘Am I able to do this?’” he said.

The Army recently referred Pulido and other amputee soldiers to Sun Valley, Idaho, for a ski trip, which was funded mostly through private donations, he said. Pulido would like to see the military pay for such trips as a necessary part of therapy, since watching other amputees, whether they be Paralympians or accident survivors, engage in rock climbing and winter sports allayed some present — and even future — fears.

Pulido recently was promoted to vice president of research and convening at the United Way, an agency that even came to Pulido’s aid while he was hospitalized for 52 days at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

He soon will be medically retired from the military.

“Everybody here (in Oklahoma) has been very positive to me, and that’s exactly what I needed,” Pulido said. “This is a military community and I’m lucky to live in this community because of that. They have an understanding that if we’re going to fight for our freedoms, then they’re 100 percent behind us — and most people are, whether you’re Republican or Democrat.

“And that’s the great thing about this war and I hope that that continues. And I hope that we make good decisions that will impact that sector of the world, because we cannot neglect that part of the world again.”

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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