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 installation.

           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," said Liteky.

           He receives tremendous amounts of mail, from people calling him an inspiration.

           "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 that system."

           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 compromise."

           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."

To return to Charlie's Main page:

To return to SOAW-W's Main page: