If you wait long enough, you will eventually see commitment, even in Washington. Here the virtue is much discussed but seldom displayed, more often than not dissipated in a haze of rationalization, calculation and thoughts of the future. This week however, brought us the sight of two exemplars, who acted on conviction without regard to the consequences.
On Tuesday, Charles J. Liteky, a 55-year-old former priest, turned in his Congressional Medal of Honor. Since there is no mechanism for giving up the nation's highest military honor -- hitherto there has been no call for one -- Liteky went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and placed a large envelope at its foot. On the outside, this information was neatly lettered:
"CONTENTS: "THIS ENVELOPE CONTAINS THE CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, AWARDED NOV. 19, 1968, TO CHARLES J. LITEKY FOR VALOR IN VIETNAM. THE MEDAL WAS RENOUNCED ON JULY 29, 1986, IN PROTEST OF THE U.S. INTERVENTION IN CENTRAL AMERICA, SEEN BY THE FORMER HOLDER OF THIS MEDAL AS ANOTHER VIETNAM."
Liteky expanded on these matters at a news conference held under the auspices of Witness for Peace and other religious groups that, like him, are unreconciled to the notion that there is no way to peace except war in Central America.
Guilelessly, earnestly, blinking through his bifocals at the camera lights, he told his life story.
He is Washington-born, the son of a Navy career man. He went to the Trinitarian seminary in Winchester, Va., and Conception abby in Minnesota. He left his parish gladly in answer to a call for chaplains from Cardinal Francis Spellman. He believed in the goals.
Liteky won the Medal of Honor for pulling 20 men to safety in a fierce fight near Ben Hoa that left 25 Americans dead and 80 wounded. "I was there, and I had nothing else to do," he said dryly to reporters. President Lyndon B. Johnson pinned the medal on him at an East Room ceremony.
When he came home, Liteky started reading about the war. The Pentagon Papers and other documents persuaded him that his government had been lying to him and his comrades. He left the priesthood. It was celibacy -- "I needed someone in my life." Three years ago, he married a former nun. They lived in San Francisco until February when Liteky came here to found the Federation of Veterans for Peace and to lobby Congress.
He made four trips to Nicaragua. He slept in the homes of peasants and watched the terror of women "who thought their children would be shot or their husbands dragged out of the house and killed." He thought for a long time about giving up the Medal of Honor. "It was something I could do, and I thought it might save lives," he said. "It was upping the ante, escalating the level of public protest."
At the Vietnam wall, clumps of tourists parted as Liteky made his way, envelope in hand. After he left it, a U.S. Park Police official immediately took it to a kind of warehouse where memorabilia left by visitors and tourists is kept.
In relinquishing the medal, Liteky also gives up a $200-a-month pension, a job at the Veterans Administration, PX shopping privileges.
He says he feels at peace.
Yesterday, another man at odds with his government over its Central America policy and ready to do something about it made an appearance. Dr. John Constable, chief surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, came before a House Banking subcommittee to tell what he knew of the ghastly death of Rodriguez Rojas de Negri, the 19-year-old Washington resident who was set afire by Chilean security forces.
On the third of July, Constable got a call from Dr. Jonathan Fine, president of the American Human Rights Committee. Fine was looking for a burn expert to go to Chile to minister to Rojas and a young woman companion.
Constable got on a flight to Chile. He arrived 20 minutes after Rojas died.
He told the members about Rojas' condition: 65 percent of his body covered with burns. Gravely he answered questions about dictator Augusto Pinochet's ludicrous explanation that Rojas and Carmen Quintana had set fire to themselves.
Hospital authorities had reported to him accounts given by the victims. He had no reason to doubt them.
"I think it is important to know that for the first 12 to 24 hours, most patients are in quite good condition," he said. "They can make statements, change their wills."
The members, overcome by the doctor's distinction -- and his commitment -- asked him few questions.