FORT STEWART, Ga. -- A U.S. soldier who said he left his infantry unit in Iraq to protest an "oil-driven" war was convicted of desertion Friday and sentenced to a year in prison and a bad conduct discharge.
Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, a squad leader with the Florida National Guard, received the maximum sentence. He told the jury before it determined his sentence that he's not sorry for refusing to return to his unit because he believes the war in Iraq is unjust.
"I have no regrets. Not one," said Mejia, before the jury of four officers and four enlisted soldiers met for 20 minutes before handing down his sentence.
In his comments to the jury, Mejia said he was not afraid of going to jail. "I will take it because I will go there with my honor, knowing I have done the right thing," he said.
Mejia, 28, testified that he disobeyed orders to return to his unit from a two-week furlough in October because his war experiences prompted him to seek status as a conscientious objector. He turned himself in to the Army five months later.
He told jurors that one of the turning points for him was an ambush his unit faced in Ramadi, when he said four soldiers were wounded by shrapnel and he saw an Iraqi civilian decapitated by U.S. machine gun fire.
"So things change, perceptions change," Mejia said. "You lose perspective of the value of human life. It happens."
Mejia was led out of the courthouse by military police with his hands cuffed behind his back. Some civilian supporters shouted words of encouragement, including "Bravo, Camilo!"
"He followed the voice of his conscience," said Mejia's mother, Maritza Castillo. "A year in jail doesn't mean anything compared with living with the guilt of having been a participant of a criminal war."
Louis Font, Mejia's attorney, said he planned to appeal because the judge refused to allow as evidence Mejia's conscientious objecter application and testimony of his claims of seeing Iraqi prisoners abused.
"The defense is very disappointed in the harsh sentence," Font said. "It's a grave injustice."
Mejia's commander in Iraq, Capt. Tad Warfel, said the verdict would send a message that "deserters are punished, regardless of what their arguments are or their excuses."
"Other soldiers who think about going AWOL, when they see the precedent set here today, it will hopefully convince them not to," Warfel said.
Military prosecutors argued Mejia abandoned his troops and didn't fulfill his duty.
"He enjoyed all the benefits of the military, just not the duty," Capt. A.J. Balbo, the lead prosecutor, said in his closing argument. "The defense says he accomplished all his missions. Except the most important one -- showing up."
In March, when he turned himself in, Mejia said he would rather go to prison than fight in Iraq. He testified Thursday that he also believed he should have been discharged under a National Guard regulation limiting service of non-U.S. citizens to eight years. Mejia, a citizen of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, served for nine years.
Defense lawyer Louis Font said in his closing argument that Mejia made "an honest mistake of fact."
"This case clearly is about what was in the accused's mind," Font said. "He had an honest and reasonable view that because he had become a conscientious objector, he would not be required to serve in Iraq anymore."
Mejia's application to be an objector is being considered separately.
In his objector application, he also claims he saw Iraqi prisoners treated cruelly when he was put in charge of processing detainees last May at al-Assad, an Iraqi air base occupied by U.S. forces.
He did not mention specific abuse claims during his comments to the jury Friday, but cautioned them that their decision, and the actions of American troops in Iraq, would be noticed across the world.
"I say that we're all on trial because the world is watching. They're looking at the decisions we make (such as) war crimes, abuse of prisoners," he said.