A Matter of Honor
He gave back his Medal of Honor to risk his freedom
in protesting his country's policies
by Michael Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle, March
FT BENNING -- Standing outside the gates of Fort Benning,
Ga., protesting a U.S. Army school that trains Latin American
military officers, Charles Liteky is a paradox, a man equally
respected by many in the Army he used to be part of and by the
demonstrators who surround him.
Elite Army paratroopers and Navy commandos come out of the
Fort Benning gates >from time to time to shake Liteky's hand
and talk to him, to ask him why he has spent years protesting
the School of the Americas. Sometimes they simply want to talk
to him about the war in Vietnam -- in truth, about his war in
Liteky, who is now 69, can lay claim to a situation that,
as far as anyone can tell, applies to only one other person: As
an Army chaplain, Liteky was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's
highest decoration for heroism in combat, and less than 20 years
later, he gave it back and renounced all its privileges, including
the lifetime, tax-free pension of $600 a month.
Today, this former Catholic priest who spends half his time
in San Francisco with his wife, Judy, is scheduled to go on trial
in federal court in Georgia for trespassing at Fort Benning, a
charge that he knows he will be convicted of and for which he
thinks he will be sent to federal prison for as much as a year.
If he does go to prison, he might well be the only inmate
with the nation's highest military decoration.
In American culture, the Medal of Honor is sacrosanct. Only
3,410 men and women have received it and there are only 150 living
recipients. In the armed services, generals, admirals and colonels
are known to snap to attention when an enlisted man wearing the
medal comes into the room.
When Lyndon Johnson draped the medal around Liteky's neck
in November 1968, he said, "Son, I'd rather have one of these
babies than be president."
Liteky's road from Army hero to lifelong protester is not
as complicated as it might seem. Whatever drove him to drag 23
men to safety during a fierce firefight in Bien Hoa province,
he says, is probably what makes him now crusade against the Army
training school, whose graduates, critics say, are responsible
for the massacre of peasants and human rights workers in Central
"The reason I do what I do now is basically the same,"
he said in an interview recently. "It's to save lives. In
the case of the School of the Americas, it's to stop training
the military from the Third World, who take the training back
and employ it in the oppression of their people."
In Vietnam, he said, "the situation was more immediate.
People were getting blown up, shot and killed all around me. I
didn't get hit, and there was nothing for me to do but help them.
Some were dead. One young man died in my arms, breathing his last
breath and just gasping for air. I held him for a bit, then I
gave him last rites. Then I moved on because there were other
people crying for help."
The Army's official citation says that on Dec. 6, 1967, when
Liteky's company came under intense fire from an enemy battalion,
he crawled through machine-gun fire and dragged his wounded comrades
to the safety of a Medivac helicopter landing zone. At one point,
Liteky tried to lift a seriously wounded soldier. "Realizing
that the wounded man was too heavy to carry,'' the citation read,
``(Liteky) rolled on his back, placed the man on his chest and
through sheer determination and fortitude crawled back to the
landing zone using his elbows and heels to push himself along,
pausing for breath momentarily."
Liteky grew up the son of a career Navy noncommissioned officer
and says, "I was always very comfortable around service people,
and it was easy for me to go into the service."
In 1966, six years after being ordained as a priest, Liteky
answered an Army call for chaplains and was soon on his way to
"I was 100 percent behind going over there and putting
those Communists in their place," he says now. "I had
no problems with that. I thought I was going there doing God's
work." He left the Army in 1971.
In 1975, "mainly because of celibacy," he left the
priesthood and in 1983, married former nun Judy Balch in San Francisco.
She introduced him to refugees from El Salvador, "teenagers,
whose fathers had been killed and tortured. I didn't believe it,
but I kept going to more and more of these meetings and it became
clear these people weren't blowing in the wind."
By 1986, Liteky was devoting as much time as possible to demonstrating
against U.S. policy in Central America and the Reagan administration's
support of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. In July of that year,
he removed his Medal of Honor -- awarded to him under the name
of Angelo J. Liteky -- and placed it and a letter to President
Ronald Reagan at the Vietnam Veterans' wall in Washington.
The medal was retrieved by the National Park Service and is
now on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington.
The only other person to return a Medal of Honor was John J. McGinty
III, who renounced it for religious reasons.
Since then, Liteky has protested against the School of the
Americas and has been banned from Fort Benning because of the
many times he has invaded the post at the head of a column of
So how does Charlie Liteky's life sit with other Medal of
"When I look at Liteky, I have respect for the courage
of his views," says Paul Bucha, past president of the Congressional
Medal of Honor Society and himself a recipient of the medal for
his heroism as an Army captain in Vietnam. Bucha is now chairman
of the board of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp.
"It's difficult to be an iconoclast," Bucha says.
"It's much easier to go along. Men like Liteky are people
who should force us to pause and think, they should not be ostracized
and criticized. They are entitled to their views, and perhaps
if we listened we'd be better off."
As for Liteky, it appears he may be having some effect. In
November, the Army said it would change its School of the Americas
curriculum, making more room for courses on democracy and international
law. And the other day, Major General John Le Moyne, the post
commander at Fort Benning, called up Liteky and personally invited
him to an annual symposium on human rights.
Does Liteky think Le Moyne would have called him if he didn't
have the medal?
"No, I don't think he would have called," Liteky
says. "And yes, I guess I did use the medal consciously.
I didn't for a long time, but I see now that it provides me with
a certain respectability even though I've renounced it."
Any regrets about giving it back in the first place?
"Not at all."
School of the Americas