Medal of Honor recipient now leads a life of civil disobedience
New battles to fight
By Nora Wallace, Santa Barbara (CA) News-Press
(3) May 29, 2001
Locked behind barbed wire and confined to a small solitary cell at the Lompoc
Federal Correctional Institution, Charles Liteky struggles daily to live a
life of nonviolence.
Yet the 70-year-old former Army chaplain and recipient of the Medal of Honor
during the Vietnam War says he's at peace.
Liteky, a San Francisco resident, is two months away from finishing a
one-year sentence for trespassing on federal property. It is his second, and
longest, prison term, resulting from trespassing at Fort Benning, Ga. He and
several thousand other people were protesting the existence of the
55-year-old U.S. Army School of Americas (SOA), now called the Western
Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
The institute trains Latin American soldiers in counter-revolutionary
techniques, combat and counter-drug operations, and its opponents contend
graduates -- such as Panama's Manuel Noriega -- are responsible for human
rights abuses, including the death and torture of civilians.
"It's an honor to represent people without a voice," said Liteky, who has
also refused to pay taxes since 1986. "People are exploited, killed,
tortured, with the complicity of our government. It infuriates me. I'm
motivated by anger. I wish I had more love . It's a challenge for anyone
committed to nonviolence to come into this institution."
School officials say the current curriculum includes classes on democracy and
human rights, and that the alleged abuses are attributable to only a minor
portion of its tens of thousands of graduates.
Despite the recent name change, protesters say the school's general mission
has not changed and they continue to demonstrate.
The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest and founder of the protest
organization SOA Watch, says, "You don't teach democracy through the barrel
of a gun."
Liteky is perhaps one of the best known of the many people who have been
imprisoned for protesting at the school. While he sits in jail, others stay
at the gates of Fort Benning, holding signs and waging water-only fasts to
call attention to their cause. On Thursday, 24 people were sentenced to terms
ranging from probation to one year for trespassing at the military
Liteky admits he'd rather be on the outside, joining the demonstrations.
"No one in their right mind would want to be here," he said last week in an
hour-long interview observed by a prison administrator. "In a sense, it's
God's will. As long as I'm legitimately led here, I feel at peace."
Liteky doesn't consider himself a leader in the anti-SOA movement, though
others do. He acknowledges getting more attention because of his medal
status, but grudgingly accepts it.
"They don't give a Medal of Honor to a Martin Luther King, or to the
Berrigans (fellow protesters), who are willing to suffer rather than kill,"
He receives tremendous amounts of mail, from people calling him an
"They ask why a person who doesn't need to be in jail is in jail," he said.
"I'm here as an expression of faith. Also as a citizen participating in a
democracy I see as a pure sham. We're involved in some pretty messy stuff all
over the world. I feel obligated to protest, to say no."
The path Liteky took to the Lompoc prison was long and circuitous. He is a
man of well-documented contrasts: the son of a career Navy enlisted man, he
was at one time strongly anti-Communist. He volunteered for two tours of duty
in Vietnam, and later resigned from the priesthood largely in opposition to
its celibacy tenet. He then became a full-time peace activist.
"Following nonviolence requires a lot more courage than going into the
military," he said.
It was in the Army that Liteky experienced the defining moment that would
earn him lifelong notoriety and prestige. In 1967, Liteky -- then called by
his ordination name of Angelo -- was near Phuoc-Lac in Vietnam, joining a
search and destroy mission with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.
The squad came under intense enemy fire. In what his medal citation documents
as a "magnificent display of courage and leadership," Liteky administered
last rites to the dying, dragged others to safety, and faced rocket and small
arms fire to direct medevac helicopters in and out of the area.
Despite wounds to his neck and foot, he was credited with carrying 23 men to
safety, including one man he carried on his chest while moving on his back to
the landing zone. For those efforts, he was awarded the nation's highest
honor for heroism in combat.
But almost 20 years later, he became the second person in history to renounce
the medal. He left the decoration at the base of the Vietnam Memorial in
Washington, D.C., as a protest of the Reagan administration's policies in
Central America. The medal was recovered and is now displayed at the National
Museum of American History.
In addition to leaving behind the medal, Liteky gave up the lifelong $600
monthly pension given to the 149 living awardees. He said he could not
renounce the medal but keep its trappings.
"The Medal of Honor is the highest military award," said Liteky, who in 1986
fasted for almost 50 days to bring attention to his cause. "It's held up
almost like a sacred relic in the church, like a holy icon. A certain amount
of respect goes with that. I get a lot more credit than I deserve."
The change in his life from Vietnam to Lompoc is not lost on Liteky.
"I used to call myself a hawk in clerical clothing," he said, wearing drab
beige prison clothing and blue laceless sneakers. "Now I'm a naked dove. And
a dove that's vulnerable."
After returning from the war, Liteky resigned his vows in 1975. Five years
later, he met Judy Balch, a former Immaculate Heart of Mary nun. They married
three years later. She, too, has been active in the plight of refugees from
El Salvador and Guatemala.
"I'm more drawn to the legislative component; he was more drawn to the
symbolic witness," Judy Liteky said.
After spending one day in prison years ago -- which terrified her -- she will
not take her protests to the same level, she said. But she understands that
her husband will likely return to prison in the future.
"The reasons that got him in there haven't changed enough that he's going to
stop," she said.
Until April, Judy was allowed daily 15-minute phone conversations with her
husband, but that was changed to less time. She's found support through
friends and her church, which held a potluck fund-raiser to help her pay for
her trips to Lompoc.
Bourgeois, whose organization is based near Fort Benning, met Liteky 11 years
ago, when they held a water-only fast in protest of the murder of six Jesuits
and two women in El Salvador.
"His coming into this issue as a veteran, standing vigil at an Army post,
gives Charlie a lot of credibility," Bourgeois said. "People pay attention to
that. They often write us off as a bunch of peace activists. But when a
veteran addresses the issue, they pay a little better attention."
In 1990, Liteky received his first prison sentence, after joining his brother
Patrick and Bourgeois to sneak into the School of Americas and squirt a vial
of their blood on portraits of SOA graduates. All three were sent to prison.
"What we learned was that they could send us to prison, but they couldn't
silence us," Bourgeois said. "We were able to speak from prison."
When people such as Liteky go to jail, Bourgeois says, "It gives witness. It
energizes others. It pumps new life into the movement."
Liteky has continued his civil disobedience while incarcerated. Confined for
more than nine months at the low-security federal prison camp -- a
dormitory-like setting that included work at a construction site and taking
care of a chapel and Native American sweat lodge -- Liteky was recently
transferred to the minimum-security correctional institution.
"It compromised my conscience to stay over there at the work camp," he
explained. "Part of the work by inmates generates money for the system. Since
I'm protesting the government, I felt I should not do anything that supports
He is most distressed now because an appeal of his sentence was dismissed a
few months ago, as was a petition for another hearing. Those developments, he
charges, were an injustice that led him to believe the prison had no "right
to incarcerate me. I was free to leave at any time."
In the interest of disclosure, he approached administrators and told them his
conclusion. He thus became targeted as an inmate plotting escape, and was
transferred to the correctional facility.
"I'm very much at peace," he said. "I'm following my conscience without
He will also refuse, he said, to pay the $10,000 fine levied against him with
the trespassing charge.
"I'll be glad to pay the fine when the U.S. government obeys the world court
and gives reparations for what it has done," he said.
Liteky and his followers have appealed his case to the Supreme Court, on the
basis that his sentence and fine were excessive for the misdemeanor
trespassing offense of civil disobedience.
Much of that legal work is being done free by attorneys and volunteers,
including Harvey Harrison, a Los Angeles literary agent and attorney who met
Liteky in January 1999.
"Charlie not only has become a focal point for some SOA Watch attention, but
has also become an ambassador for the fact that the entire criminal system
disregards a tremendous number of cases in accordance with the laws of
sentencing," said Harrison, whose 15-year-old son David also helped out.
Harrison calls Liteky his "hero."
"Charlie Liteky's entire life has been spent sacrificing himself for the
benefit of others," Harrison said.
With release on the horizon, Liteky said he spends time thinking about "how
to say 'no' next."
"I'll probably get into something and be back in prison," he said of his
post-release plans. "I expect that to be part of my life."
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