In the ever-growing annals of blaming victims, nothing surpasses, at least in the category of breathtaking gall, the suit recently filed against S. Brian Willson. He is the Californian -- a lawyer, a former Air Force officer and Vietnam combat veteran -- who, in a nonviolent protest Sept. 1, 1987, at the Concord (Calif.) Naval Weapons Station, sought to block a munitions train.

Nuclear and conventional bombs, missiles, grenades, white phosphorus and other weapons are transported out of Concord, a major Pentagon arsenal, to Central America, the Pacific and other fronts. Willson is a pacifist who has traveled extensively in Nicaragua and believes that the United States' shipment of weapons to kill people in Central America is illegal under international and constitutional law. He wrote to base officials with the details of a planned protest on the railroad tracks, which went through a public right-of-way. From June 10 to Sept. 1, protesters were at the site daily. They were regularly arrested or removed. On one occasion, a train stopped before hitting a protester.

The Sept. 1 train didn't stop for Brian Willson. Now he is being sued by the civilian engineer, brakeman and conductor of the train for the "humiliation, embarrassment, {and} emotional distress" that the protest allegedly inflicted on them. A Navy report said the train was traveling between 12 and 16 miles per hour in a 5 mph zone. With the brakeman and conductor on the front of the locomotive, the train severed both of Willson's legs, cracked his right shoulder blade and right wrist, severed his left ear, severely bruised his right kidney and opened a hole in his forehead deep enough for brain tissue to be visible.

I spent a recent evening interviewing Willson. On the question of how he survived, Willson credited his wife, Holley Rauen, for coming to his aid after he was dragged several dozen yards by the train. She stopped the bleeding, he recalled. Willson told a House subcommittee that a Navy ambulance team refused both medical assistance and transportation to a hospital. A county ambulance eventually arrived.

Willson suffered "regional amnesia," a posttrauma block in which he had no memory for two days after being hit. Eventually he became concerned with what the Concord officials remembered about the events that day. A Navy inquiry found that the train crew had seen Willson and two other demonstrators -- both would jump away in time -- on the tracks 500 to 600 yards away. Instead of slowing and stopping, the crew plowed ahead. The Navy report quoted the civilian Concord security manager telling an operations foreman 10 minutes before the tragedy, "You might as well let them go ahead. We're going to have a confrontation sooner or later."

It came sooner.

Willson, who has filed a claim against the Navy, both for negligence and for violating his civil and constitutional rights, is still seeking to discover how high on the chain of command orders were given not to stop.

As astonishing as the suit against Willson may be, another part of this story is equally beyond belief. When Willson testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Investigations in mid-November, the chairman, Rep. Bill Nichols (D-Ala.), backed by a 9-4 vote, ordered Willson to limit his remarks to what happened at the incident. As a result, only brief portions of Willson's 15-page statement were allowed to be entered into the record. Other testimony -- Willson's references to the history of nonviolent protest, international law, his witnessing the lethal effects of U.S. weapons in Central America, the Reagan administration's defiance of the World Court and the supremacy of conscience -- was ruled out.

One of four subcommittee members voting against the Nichols gag order was Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). An experienced politician who has seen her share of congressional chicanery, she recalls being incredulous when Willson was silenced: "I was totally shocked. This was undemocratic. I had never heard of not letting a witness put his statement in the record. I found it absolutely shameful. During the Iran-contra hearings, Oliver North had the option of going on and on ad nauseam on why he did what he did. No one stopped him. He had his full say. Laws were broken. But here was Brian Willson and Congress muzzled him. It was horrible and crazy. We'll lose democracy that way."

Boxer, joined by Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.), one of the other three voting against the silencing, put the full Willson testimony into the Congressional Record.

A citizen lost his legs and Congress tried to still his voice. If anything unbelievable is left in all this, it's that Willson remains free of bitterness toward the crewmen suing him. He sees them as fellow victims of the military: "I've spent two years counseling Vietnam veterans for delayed stress," he told a reporter for The National Catholic Reporter. "One of the issues involved with that stress is the conflict between conscience and following orders. If there is to be healing, one has to talk about the conscience, which is closer to truth than orders, in order to extricate oneself from the burden."