Charlie Liteky, an Army chaplain in Vietnam who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts to save the lives of others and then gave it back decades later to protest Reagan administration policies in Central America, died Jan. 20 in San Francisco. He was 85.
David Hartsough, a friend and fellow peace activist, said Mr. Liteky was in hospice at a Veterans Affairs hospital in San Francisco. He had suffered a stroke in December.
Established by Congress during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest award for valor in combat. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 3,498 individuals have received the award; Mr. Liteky, according to operations director Victoria Kueck, is likely the only person to return the award.
Mr. Liteky (pronounced LIT-key) served two tours of duty in Vietnam, during which he dodged enemy gunfire to pull more than 20 wounded soldiers safely out of battle. By the time he returned to the United States, he was a national hero with the aura of what one reporter described as a ruggedly handsome “movie war hero.”
Yet about two decades after President Lyndon B. Johnson placed the Medal of Honor around Mr. Liteky’s neck — telling him, according to one account, “I’d rather have one of these babies than be president” — Mr. Liteky transformed himself from a reticent Army veteran into an outspoken peace activist.
Lobbying against U.S. foreign policies in Central America in the mid-1980s, he walked the halls of Congress trying to convince politicians to oppose the Reagan administration’s support for right-wing groups in Nicaragua and El Salvador. When that proved unsuccessful, he left his Medal of Honor and a letter to President Ronald Reagan at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in July 1986.
Less than a month later, he and three other veterans engaged in a 47-day hunger strike on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, consuming nothing but water until the near-death of one striker convinced them to break their fast.
“By then I’d begun to wake up about what my country was doing to Latin America,” Mr. Liteky told the San Francisco Examiner in 2000, noting that he was particularly upset by a comparison that Reagan made between the contras — a right-wing rebel group in Nicaragua that was accused of murdering and torturing civilians — to America’s Founding Fathers.
“Then I had to go down and see for myself, to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras,” he continued. “I was ashamed of my country. And I was ashamed I’d participated in the same thing in Vietnam.”
The son of a gruff World War II veteran known as “the Chief,” Charles Joseph Liteky was born in Washington on Feb. 14, 1931. His father served 33 years in the Navy, a job that led to frequent moves when Mr. Liteky was growing up.
After graduating from high school in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was quarterback of the football team, Mr. Liteky attended college for two years before transferring to an Alabama seminary affiliated with the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity.
Now known as Trinity Missions, the group is a Catholic congregation “working among the poor and abandoned” across the United States and Latin America, according to its website.
Mr. Liteky was ordained in 1960. Under the Catholic name Angelo, he worked for six years at churches in New York, Virginia and elsewhere in the country. When he heard reports of a shortage of Catholic chaplains in the Army, he jumped at the chance to volunteer, saying later that he believed he “was doing God’s work.”
He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Dec. 6, 1967, when his company was surprised by sudden machine-gun fire in Vietnam’s Bien Hoa province. As his company took cover on the ground, Mr. Liteky spotted two wounded men near the enemy position and began dragging them to safety, prompting his fellow soldiers to rally and return fire.
“When Captain Liteky went out there the first time, we knew we’d never see him again,” a man from Mr. Liteky’s campaign later told television reporters. “And by the end of that day we just knew he could walk on water.”
Mr. Liteky subsequently ran through enemy fire, according to his official Medal of Honor citation, “administering last rites to the dying and evacuating the wounded.” To save one wounded man too heavy to carry, Mr. Liteky “rolled on his back, placed the man on his chest and through sheer determination and fortitude crawled back to the landing zone using his elbows and heels to push himself along.”
In total, Mr. Liteky was found to have carried more than 20 wounded soldiers to safety, despite wounds in his neck and on one of his feet and without carrying a weapon.
After leaving the Army, he lived for a time in a cabin on a Florida island, surviving on a pension given to Medal of Honor recipients; worked at a halfway house for veterans in Cleveland; and made candles, according to a Washington Post account in 1983. He left the priesthood in 1975, according to his friends David Hartsough and Richard Olive, because of frustration with the church’s celibacy requirement for pastors and its hierarchical organization.
His life found new direction about the time he married the former Judith Balch, a peace activist and former nun, in 1983. Through her he became acquainted with the plight of Central American refugees, who told stories of murder and torture in testimonials at St. John of God Catholic Church in San Francisco.
Hearing their stories had a transformative effect on Mr. Liteky, his friends said in separate interviews, and prompted him to travel to Washington in 1985 for his lobbying and protest efforts.
The Medal of Honor he left at the Vietnam War memorial was collected by the National Park Service, which maintains the memorial, and later displayed at the National Museum of American History.
Mr. Liteky’s wife died in August. He had no immediate survivors, his friends said.
In the 1990s and 2000s, he turned his attention to protesting the Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. The school, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has trained anti-communist militants from Latin America, including Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega.
With Roy Bourgeois, an ordained Catholic priest at the time, Mr. Liteky participated in annual marches on the Army school and was twice imprisoned for trespassing. In 1999, Mr. Liteky, his brother Patrick Liteky and Bourgeois were arrested for carrying vials of their own blood onto the military base and splashing it on the walls.
Mr. Liteky served two consecutive six-month sentences for trespassing and spent his last 70 days at Lompoc Prison in solitary confinement, according to a 2001 story in the San Francisco Chronicle, “because he refused to work for what he considers an immoral prison industry.”
In 2003, he and other peace activists traveled to Baghdad to witness the U.S. war effort in Iraq and work at an orphanage and at hospitals. He had written President George W. Bush a letter two years earlier, encouraging a nonviolent response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“If there is any enemy here, it’s violence,” he wrote. “We need to protest and boycott violence because we eat, drink and sleep it in our country; we are entertained by it. If we don’t stop, we’re just going to join in an unending cycle of violence, like an escalator that keeps going up and up and up.”
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