One married former priest I got to know through the peace movement is Charlie Liteky. He is a dedicated activist and so it was a pleasant surprise to see this retrospective article about him on the occasion of his high school reunion.
'He was our quarterback, and quarterbacks save the world'
By Matt Soergel
Sunday, Apr. 19, 2009
It's 1948, third down and long at Robert E. Lee High School on the Westside. Charlie Liteky, a darkly handsome, 6-foot-1, 160-pound senior, trots on the field. The other team knows what he's going to do: Throw the ball. Because that's the only thing he does. And he's going to do it again.
It's 1967, an ambush in a Vietnam rice paddy, where machine gun fire and rockets sing their deadly song. Army chaplain Charlie Liteky gives last rites to the dead and dying, often walking upright amid the bullets. And more than 20 times, he carries the wounded from the battlefield to safety. There is so much blood, he'll smell it until the day he dies.
It's 1968, in the White House, and President Lyndon Johnson presents Charlie Liteky with the Medal of Honor. It is the country's highest award for valor, and he is the first chaplain to earn it.
It's 1986, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where Charlie Liteky becomes the first person in history to give up the Medal of Honor. Cameras click as he places the medal before the black wall that's covered with the names of the dead. It's something he has to do, he is so sickened by the policies of the country he served.
It's later in 1986, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and Charlie Liteky is gaunt, burning with hunger. For more than six weeks, he and three other veterans have starved themselves, protesting the Reagan administrations's policies toward Central America. After 46 days, one of the veterans is days, perhaps hours, from death. Only then do they eat.
It's 2001, inside a federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif., and Charlie Liteky is turning 70. It's his second time in prison following protests outside Fort Benning in Georgia, where the U.S. had trained Latin American military officers, some of who were later linked to atrocities in their home countries. He didn't want to mark that birthday in prison - but this is what he must do, he is so angry at his country.
It's 2003, in Baghdad, and Charlie Liteky is there with other peace protestors, bearing witness to what he calls an unjust and unwise war. He feels the ground shake during the bombardment, and he gives arriving U.S. soldiers copies of anti-war statements he wrote. He needed to be there. He says he now knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of American bombs.
Roy Bourgeois is a Maryknoll priest and founder of School of the Americas Watch, based outside Fort Benning, where he's protested and fasted with Liteky. He said his friend, even in his 70s, is driven by a zealous distaste for bullying and unfairness - and a need for action.
"Talk, Charlie discovered, is cheap," Bourgeois said. "He has to do more than writing a letter to Congress or a letter to the editor. He has to put his body on the line."
'He was our quarterback'
Liteky's classmates from Lee's class of 1949 will meet this Friday and Saturday for their 60th reunion. Liteky was planning to join them, but health issues will keep him home in San Francisco, where he's spent most of the past three decades. Liteky never thought he'd live to be an old man, but here he is, 78 years on in life.
Friends of his from Lee say they weren't surprised by Liteky's actions in Vietnam - or by his protests over the following decades.
"That's just who Charlie is, a man who is willing to risk speaking out when he feels injustice prevails," said Richard Petry, once a captain of the Lee football team, now a retired Methodist clergyman from Jacksonville.
"He has very strong feelings, which I don't agree with," said Carroll Gambrell, who now lives in South Carolina. "But that's beside the point. Subsequent events didn't diminish his act of valor to win the Medal of Honor in the first place."
Gambrell said Liteky was a charismatic student who broke a lot of girls' hearts when he went to seminary in his early 20s. Despite their differing views on the world, Gambrell still admires him- recently he even wrote an essay about his old friend. The title? "Faith and Valor."
"He was our quarterback," Gambrell wrote, "and quarterbacks save the world. And also being a priest - they save the world, don't they?"
Perhaps not the world. But Liteky did save the lives of American soldiers on some bloody ground in Vietnam.
His Medal of Honor citation, given to him under his ordination name of Father Angelo, says that at one point he went within 50 feet of an enemy machine gun to rescue men. He carried one wounded man to safety by hoisting him on his chest and crawling to the evacuation zone. He stood up under fire to free a solider trapped in dense brush. He faced fire while directing medevac helicopters in and out. All while wounded by shrapnel in the neck and foot.
Only doing his duty
Liteky says he wasn't trying to be a hero. Others needed help; he had a duty to them.
He was unarmed, by choice, but at one point he picked up an M-16 rifle belonging to a fallen American soldier. He'd been trained. He was no pacifist. He knew what to do with it.
Still, after a few seconds, he put the rifle down, thinking to himself: Holding a weapon - now wouldn't that be a hell of a way for a priest to die?
Charlie Liteky was a hometown hero in 1968, with his fresh Medal of Honor and his incredible story of heroism. The newspapers followed him as he was honored by the city, as he led Mass and as he spoke of the need for more aggressive U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.
Editorials praised him. And a Jacksonville Journal reporter couldn't help but note: "The rugged and handsome Army chaplain has the appearance of a movie war hero."
Liteky would soon volunteer for another tour of duty in Vietnam. He was in his late 30s, but he'd seen what the Communists had done there, and he knew where his duty and his God required him to be.
"I had really developed a sympathy and an admiration for the young men there at the time. A lot of them were there against their will," he said.
He left the Army in 1971, the year he turned 40. It was a time of change, of questioning. He thought often of advice a professor had given him between his two Vietnam tours: "You need to rise above the assumptions of your subcultures."
Troubled by what he'd seen in the war, he took a yearlong leave of absence from the priesthood.
Struggling with celibacy - he had a couple of affairs and romantic relationships - he made the difficult decision to leave the priesthood permanently in 1975, feeling as if he'd let God down.
"They used to talk about celibacy being a gift. And after a while, I thought, 'Well, I didn't get the gift.' "
He moved to the West Coast, where no one knew him, and gravitated toward cosmopolitan San Francisco. While working for the Veterans Administration, he married a teacher and ex-nun, Judy Balch.
She encouraged him to work for social justice and urged him to go with other veterans to several Central American countries where the U.S. government had intervened militarily. He went, and saw a horror that took him back to Vietnam.
He was especially struck by a group of women called Mothers of the Disappeared, who searched through grisly photos of hundreds of massacred people, looking under the blood for missing family members.
So there he was, in his mid-50s, when his awakening came.
He began the public protests that would occupy him until the present day, the peace groups, the protests, fasts, vigils and imprisonment. Along the way, his religious faith, which had been so important for so long, was mutating.
"In seminary," he said, "our big code word was, 'Think with the church.' I thought, 'I need to think for myself.' " Liteky said he believed in a church that was pacifist and non-materialistic, even socialist. That wasn't the church in which he was raised. So his faith gradually slipped away.
"It cost me that relationship I had with God," he said. "Oh, I still pray, sort of like, 'If there's anybody there, I need some help.' Other than that, I don't know if there's anything there behind the final curtain."
'An ex-lot of things'
Charlie Liteky's life is defined by his heroism in 1967 - and by his decision to renounce the medal that honored that heroism. Giving it up, he says, was not hard. Indeed, he felt as if it was the only thing he could do, given his anger at his country.
His chief regret was not acting earlier, during the Vietnam War. "I accepted it, but I wish now that I hadn't," he said. "I wish I could have woken up when I was there, and protested the war."
The one other regret was giving up the a tax-free monthly award that comes with the Medal of Honor and is now worth about $1,100 a month. "I tell my wife, Judy: 'You know it seemed like a good idea at the time,' " he said, giving a big laugh.
Liteky is working on a book about his life, and his editor has suggested that he leave out some of the more damning details - about his love life, about what he calls his "disgust" with so much of what the United States has done.
Liteky, though, wants to leave it in. All of it.
"Heroes, so-called heroes, have clay feet just like everybody else. When you're getting all those accolades, and you know who you really are, the mistakes you've made - it doesn't feel that good," he said.
Several times during long conversations, he wonders how much time he has to live. That's what old men do, he says, as they weigh whether they've made a difference during their time on earth.
He'll tell you straight off that he knows he's far from perfect.
"But I have tried to live life to the truth as I see it at the time. That's a very costly thing; I've lost a lot. I'm an ex-lot of things. But what have you got? Your integrity."
Photos: Charlie Liteky as military chaplain and later with his wife, Judy