Charles Liteky, former Army chaplain who returned Medal of Honor in protest, dies

Charles Liteky joins Veterans for Peace San Francisco in a protest against U.S. wars on Dec. 16, 2010. (Jan Adams)

Charles Liteky joins Veterans for Peace San Francisco in a protest against U.S. wars on Dec. 16, 2010. (Jan Adams)

Linda Cooper


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In December 1967, in a dense jungle in South Vietnam, a Catholic chaplain was accompanying U.S. Army forces on a search and destroy operation when they came under heavy fire from an unseen enemy battalion near Bien Hoa.

Stunned by an explosion of rockets and machine-gun fire, the Americans hit the ground, all but paralyzed. All except the chaplain, Charles Liteky, who rose up after spotting two wounded men lying less than 50 feet from an enemy machine-gun position. Undeterred, Liteky rushed to them, shielding them with his body and dragging both to safety.

The Army said Liteky's courage was the reason U.S. troops rallied and returned fire, allowing Liteky to continue to move through enemy fire, administering last rites and evacuating the wounded. When the fighting ended, Liteky had brought more than 20 wounded men to safety, despite being wounded himself in the neck and foot.

A year later, in November 1968, after the war had engulfed his presidency, Lyndon Johnson awarded Liteky the U.S. military's highest tribute, the Medal of Honor, at a White House ceremony attended by Gen. William Westmoreland, who had commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam.

As he draped the medal around Liteky's neck, Johnson said, "I'd rather have one of these babies than be president."

No one who knew of his battlefield exploits was surprised by the honor. What shocked many was that 18 years later Liteky renounced the medal, leaving it at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in protest of the Reagan administration's covert war against the Nicaraguan government.

Liteky also refused the medal's $600 a month lifetime stipend. His medal, the first ever to be returned, was put on display in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Liteky, who died Jan. 20 in a San Francisco hospital at the age of 85, was "an exceptional peace activist for our time because he had such credibility with the military," said his longtime friend, Roy Bourgeois, a fellow ex-priest and Vietnam veteran.

Bourgeois and Liteky spearheaded the movement to close the secretive U.S. Army's School of the Americas with their arrests in 1990, when the school's graduates were first linked to the assassinations of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador.

"He's such an inspiration for those of us struggling to find hope, to find truth," Bourgeois said. "Sometimes when we find the truth, we back off when the consequences become clear. But Charlie never did."

Liteky was the son of a career military man. He was ordained a priest with the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity in 1960, six years before joining the U.S. Army.

"Politically," he would write later, "I was a clerical hawk," who believed that "any war against communism was just. I knew little to nothing about Vietnam and its centuries-long struggle to free itself from foreign domination."

He had volunteered for Vietnam, but nothing in his background prepared him for the firefight on Dec. 6, 1967, near Bien Hoa. He'd gone out with troops on patrol, but had never been in such a savage, close-range battle, and was hard put to explain his actions, except to say that death didn't "hold much fear for me that day."

The army explained it differently, as "a magnificent display of courage and leadership."

The official citation describes his numerous rescues including that of a seriously wounded man, whom he placed on his chest and "through sheer determination and fortitude crawled back to the landing zone using his elbows and heels to push himself along …Through his indomitable inspiration and heroic actions, Chaplain Liteky saved the lives of a number of his comrades and enabled the company to repulse the enemy."

Liteky was so committed to the cause that he re-upped for a second tour of duty at a time the anti-war movement back home was raging.

This time, he was assigned to a battalion that rewarded soldiers with extra leave if they "brought in five ears to show you had killed five Viet Cong," according to U.S. Army Chaplain Corps historian John Brinsfield, who said Liteky went straight up the chain of command to get the barbaric policy stopped.

As the war dragged on, conducting memorial services became routine in forward base camps, and most of Liteky's time was spent composing letters of condolence to the wives and mothers of men killed in action. He later wrote, that he gradually became accustomed to the suffering of war and "left the Army in 1971 with my humanity severely damaged."

He started working as a counselor at the VA where he saw more evidence of the physical and psychological toll the war had taken on his fellow veterans. At the same time, he was fighting an inner battle over celibacy and left the priesthood in 1975.

Eight years later, he married Judy Balch, a former nun, college math teacher and peace activist in San Francisco who was working in the sanctuary movement with refugees from war-torn Central America.

After she opened his eyes about what the U.S. was doing there, Liteky went on a fact-finding mission to El Salvador in the early 1980s along with ten Vietnam veterans. It was a trip that forced him to wrestle with the demons he was carrying. Poor Salvadoran women showed them photographs of the mutilated bodies of their loved ones and told them stories of atrocities that implicated the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military.

Their stories, he said, triggered suppressed memories of Vietnam and crashed through his emotional defenses. He prayed for the courage to face the fact "that I had been a moral supporter of an immoral war." He said he would carry "the burden of that sorrow for the rest of my life. Literally millions of lives were wasted … old men and women, young boys and girls, mothers and infants."

While he couldn't change his past, he realized he could oppose war and accompany its victims. By the summer of 1986, Liteky had evolved into a peace activist with more zeal than he had shown for fighting communists.

That spring he was particularly disturbed by President Ronald Reagan's push for a $100 million aid package for the Nicaraguan Contras, a CIA-trained force trying to overthrow the Sandinista government.

Reagan claimed the Sandinistas were "communists" and a grave national security threat to the United States, while describing the Contras as "Freedom fighters" and the "moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers."

His remarks came after a former Contra leader, Edgar Chamorro, once a prized CIA asset, had given testimony to the International Court of Justice that it was standard Contra practice "to kill prisoners and suspected Sandinista collaborators." What's more, he said, they used a CIA manual, Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, that advocated assassinating Nicaraguan officials and terrorizing the civilian population.

Liteky was dumbfounded that the Democrat-controlled House passed the Contra funding package on June 25. Two days later, the International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. had violated the Hague Convention by mining the harbors of Nicaragua and arming and training the Contras. It ordered the U.S. to pay reparations, but the Reagan administration refused to recognize the court's jurisdiction, and blocked the U.N. Security Council from enforcing the judgment.

Liteky joined a campaign that included 28 members of Congress and 150 religious leaders, including Detroit Bishop Tom Gumbleton, in an effort to pressure the Senate to kill the aid.

On July 29, Liteky renounced his Medal of Honor, saying that he did it "for the same basic reason I received it — trying to save lives."

He left it at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, along with a letter to Reagan which stated in part, "You insulted every American patriot when you referred to these killers of children, old men and women as 'freedom fighters,' comparable to the founding fathers."

In the end, Reagan got his way. On Aug, 13, the Senate rubber-stamped the funding. A few weeks later, Liteky began a 47-day, water-only fast on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with three other veterans to protest the escalation of the war against Nicaragua.

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Charles Liteky, left, and three fellow veterans fasting in protest of U.S. intervention in Central America meet Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, center, on Sept. 11, 1986. (Rick Reinhard)

Joining him were George Mizo, an Army combat veteran who founded the Vietnam Friendship Village which cares for children and victims of the war; Duncan Murphy, a World War II ambulance driver who helped evacuate those held at the Belsen concentration camp; and S. Brian Willson, an Air Force veteran and lawyer who a year later lost both legs trying to block a Navy train carrying weapons to Central America.

They ended the grueling fast shortly after 88 members of Congress issued a joint statement supporting them. However, Republican Sen. Warren Rudman compared the veterans to terrorists, and the FBI opened a "terrorism" investigation, which led to the firing of agent Jack Ryan when he refused to conduct it.

The next month the veterans were further vindicated when the Iran-Contra scandal broke. Despite repeated denials, the Reagan administration had been selling arms to Iran, a country the administration had designated "a state sponsor of terrorism." The sales were in exchange for hostages, and the money was diverted to fund the Contras.

It was while protesting the Contra aid in Washington that fall that he met Roy Bourgeois, then a Maryknoll priest and fellow Vietnam veteran-turned-peace activist who had returned his Purple Heart to the Pentagon in 1980.

The two men bonded almost immediately and would join forces after the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989.

The following year, Rep. Joe Moakley's Congressional task force reported that five of the nine Salvadorans arrested for the Jesuit massacre had been trained at the School of the Americas, housed at Ft. Benning, Ga., where Liteky trained before volunteering for Vietnam.

Liteky and Bourgeois, accompanied by seven other activists, began a water-only fast near the base's main entrance on Labor Day, and almost immediately encountered hostility from a town gripped by war fever. Then President George H. W. Bush was amassing U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf, many dispatched from Fort Benning.

While obscenities were often hurled at the group, the base commander came out to shake the hand of the Medal of Honor winner.

But when the fast ended after 35 days, Liteky and Bourgeois felt that the school's ongoing training of Salvadoran troops, along with its refusal to take responsibility for its role in the Jesuit massacre, demanded a stronger response.

On the first anniversary of the Jesuit killings, the two men, along with Liteky's brother Patrick, arrived at SOA headquarters and planted crosses with photographs of the slain priests and the two women. To dramatize the school's complicity, they threw small bottles of their blood, mixed with that of the Jesuit martyrs, on the walls and a portrait gallery of its graduates known as the "Hall of Fame," which included photographs of Latin American dictators like Gen. Hugo Banzer of Bolivia who'd sheltered Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie.

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Military police arrest Charles Liteky during a blood-pouring action at the headquarters of the School of the Americas on Nov. 16, 1990. (Courtesy of SOA Watch) 

The three went on trial in the spring of 1991 after U.S. forces had devastated Iraq, bombing thousands of retreating Iraqi troops on the "Highway of Death," an annihilation U.S. pilots called "a turkey shoot."

The city was preparing a huge red-carpet homecoming for 4,000 returning Fort Benning troops. Patriotic fever was so high stores had run out of flags.

The three activists went before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Elliott, known for overturning the convictions of William Calley, the Army lieutenant court-martialed for murdering 22 unarmed civilians in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

During the trial, Elliot blocked testimony about the School of the Americas and repeatedly cut Charles Liteky off when he tried to explain his protest action and the profound effect the Vietnam War had on his life.

"All your experiences in Vietnam and all of that, how that may have affected your life and so on, that has nothing to do with the trial of this case," Elliot said, "You are the person named in this indictment. That's who you are."

It took the jury all of 21 minutes to return guilty verdicts. When Elliott sentenced them all to prison, they became the first of 245 people who, over the next two decades, would be incarcerated for protest actions aimed at closing the school's doors.

The fledging SOA Watch movement they launched got new ammunition in 1993 when a U.N. Truth Commission report allowed the group to link school graduates to the assassinations of Archbishop Oscar Romero and four U.S. churchwomen as well as the murders of thousands of Salvadoran civilians, most of them women and children.

That year, a Newsweek magazine article and legislation to close the school by Rep. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts brought the issue to a national audience. The movement was further fueled by the Pentagon's admission the school had used manuals advocating torture and execution.

Liteky continued to get arrested at the gates, and in 1999 he was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $10,000 in part for returning to the base in violation of a ban and bar letter.

But he refused to pay fines or restitution, saying he would do so when the U.S. government paid restitution to Nicaragua as ordered by the International Court of Justice.

But on balance, Liteky saved the government more than $323,000 by refusing to accept the Medal of Honor stipend that increased over the years with cost of living adjustments.

Liteky's renunciation of the medal — which bears an image of Minerva, the Roman goddess of warriors — was not only a protest of Reagan's covert war against Nicaragua, but a redemption, an attempt to heal from his participation in war. His imprisonments and health-threatening fasts were also part of it, but they were difficult for his late wife Judy, and Liteky often expressed regret for the pain they caused her.

Judy, who died in August 2016 at age 74, herself played an instrumental role in the movement, founding a local SOA Watch chapter in San Francisco and filing a lawsuit with Theresa Cameranesi to force the Pentagon to resume releasing the names of the soldiers trained at the school, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

"Judy was great at lifting spirits when things got rough," Bourgeois said, "And she helped Charlie with the dark nights of the soul that he wrestled with to the end of his life."

The couple did not have children. The date of the memorial service for Liteky has not yet been scheduled.

Part of Liteky's struggle, detailed in his writings, was a crisis of faith where he questioned the existence of a loving God. It stemmed partly from a deep regret for buying into the lie perpetrated by church and state that Vietnam was a just war.

It also stemmed from the perpetual warfare the United States has engaged in and the lies government officials tell to justify it. In early 2003, Liteky traveled to Baghdad with other activists to oppose the impending war. He worked with children in an orphanage and in hospitals.

In May, after U.S. forces had again decimated the country, he wrote a letter to U.S. forces in Iraq, saying that the war was as illegal as the Vietnam War; both were based on lies.

Johnson had "lied to Congress about the Gulf of Tonkin incident" which led Congress to fund the war, he wrote. Besides the false claims that Hussein had WMDs, Bush claimed to be liberating the Iraqi people although thousands of innocents were killed.

The real motive, he wrote, was to establish U.S. military bases to guarantee access to Iraq's oil reserves. He quoted Gen. Smedley Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient, who wrote "War is a Racket" and that he had spent his 33-year military career being a bodyguard for U.S. business interests.

"Once his eyes were opened," Bourgeois said, "Charlie spent his life opposing that racket. The Medal of Honor gave him a voice and he used it to speak for those who didn't have one."

[Linda Cooper and James Hodge are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 10-23, 2017 print issue under the headline: Charles Liteky, who returned Medal of Honor in protest, dies.

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