Valor Friday

| October 23, 2020

Continuing our series on valorous men of God…

Charles Liteky was a Roman Catholic priest when he entered the US Army at age 35 in 1966 as a chaplain. Perhaps inspired by his father’s service, he enlisted right around the time of his dad’s death. His father, also Charles Liteky, had served with the US Navy (enlisting at age 15) during both World Wars and retired as an aviation machinist’s mate chief petty officer. He’d also lost a younger brother, Jimmy Liteky (to causes unknown to me), in 1959 when Jimmy was just 21.

Assigned to the 199th Infantry Brigade’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company he was in Vietnam by the end of 1967. While ministering to the troops was his primary role he would also, as many chaplains did, accompany units into the field. It was on one of these search and destroy missions that Liteky would join a very short list of heroic chaplains.

Company A, 4th Battalion was operating in the area of Phuoc-Lac, with Captain Liteky in tow. As all chaplains are, he would go into the field unarmed and are prohibited from even picking up a weapon and defending themselves. A chaplain decades later, during the War in Afghanistan, sums it up nicely. “I’ve heard it said that a shepherd needs to smell like his sheep,” Chaplain Ron Eastes (US Army) explains, “and if I’m going to care for these guys, I need to be where they are.”

December 6th, 1967 the company was ambushed. The men hugged to the ground as they were attacked in force by a battalion-sized Vietcong force. Stunned by the suddenly intense fire, when he came up, Liteky saw two injured American men near an enemy machine gun position.

The chaplain moved forward, to within 15 meters of the enemy machine gun, and then positioned himself bodily between the gun and the wounded men, protecting them as he assessed their injuries. When there was a brief respite in the gun fire, he grabbed both men and dragged them to the relative safety of their landing zone (LZ), from which they would be evacuated.

Seeing their padre’s bravery and calm under fire, the company rallied. Forming a defensive line they began to pump fire into the enemy positions. While they were fighting back, the priest moved through constant enemy fire to attend to the wounded and give last rites to the dying.

Noticing another wounded man, Liteky crawled forward under the intense barrage of enemy fire to come to the man’s side. Too heavy to carry back to “safety”, Liteky did the most amazing thing.

The chaplain rolled to his back, pulled the injured soldier onto his chest, and in probably the most magnificent display of fortitude and grit, crawled back through the heavy fire with the man’s full weight on top of him using only his elbows and heels to drag them along.

Upon return to the LZ he paused only long enough to catch his breath and then headed back into the fray. Once back into the battlelines, he came upon yet another injured man tied up in the thick, thorny underbrush and unable to free himself. As the enemy took he and the trapped man under fire, easy targets as they were, Liteky once again, with unwavering devotion to his troops and calm began to go to work. Rounds whistling past him, he methodically broke the vines until the man was free. He then carried the wounded soldier back to the LZ.

At the LZ, on several occasions, as the site was taken under by enemy small arms fire, Chaplain Liteky would stand up into the fire so as to direct the medivac helicopters in and out. As the only man standing at these times, and the helicopters being loud, clear targets for the enemy, it’s miraculous that he was’t mowed down.

With the wounded evacuated, he returned to the battleline and went from position to position, encouraging the men and inspiring them with his resolve. Through the night he worked tirelessly until Company A was relieved.

It wasn’t until they were withdrawn that anyone realized that the padre had been injured himself, quite seriously. He had painful wounds to his neck and foot, but had continued in his job. He had sought no medical attention for himself and, though nobody would fault a man shot through the neck for leaving, apparently never even considered his own evacuation.

In the aftermath of the battle it was found that Chaplain Liteky had personally carried more than 20 injured men back to the LZ and to their evacuation. As his citation reads; “Through his indomitable inspiration and heroic actions, Chaplain Liteky saved the lives of a number of his comrades and enabled the company to repulse the enemy.”

Perhaps most incredible of all is that this was the captain’s first time in combat. Oh, one more thing. He didn’t have a flak jacket or helmet during the whole battle.

Liteky would receive the Medal of Honor in 1968 from President Johnson for his heroics that day in Vietnam. He was one of three chaplains to earn the medal in that conflict and the only one to live to receive the honor. Of his actions that day he said that death didn’t “hold much fear for me that day.”

Chaplain (Captain) Liteky wearing his Medal of Honor

Before he received the medal though, he volunteered to extend his stay in the hot, humid land of sideways rain for another six months. Liteky left the Army in 1971 as a major.

He is probably going to be remembered by many for his actions after the war. Taking a leave from the church after getting out of the Army he struggled with celibacy. He left the priesthood in 1975.. Working for the Veterans Administration in San Francisco, a few years later he was introduced to some El Salvadoran refugees by a former nun. Through speaking with these children, he became a staunch opponent of the American involvement in Central America. Specifically, he was against the foreign policy of the US that aided anti-communists in Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Liteky married the former nun and the two began decades of anti-war activism. In 1986 he participated in a 47-day hunger strike at age 55. The strike was to draw attention to American involvement in Nicaragua.

Liteky (right) in 1986 during his hunger strike – New York Times photo

Before the hunger strike, which took a significant toll on his health, he did something nobody else has ever done in US history. He renounced his Medal of Honor. Returning it in an envelope addressed to then-President Reagan, he laid it at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He also renounced the lifetime pension that comes with the medal.

The medal itself would be recovered by the National Park Service and donated to the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Liteky would also protest at Fort Benning, Georgia. Twice he unlawfully entered the post’s School of the Americas (now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), which trains soldiers from Latin America. Both times he squirted his own blood around. For that, he’d spend six months in prison from the stunt in 1990 and a year for doing the same thing again in 2000.

He was against the war in Iraq and protested for peace in all forms for many years. Some of his fellow Medal of Honor recipients respected his views even if they didn’t agree with them. They also voiced their admiration of a man whose convictions led him to speak out on things he felt were wrong, and in doing so went against the grain.

Liteky wrote a book called “Renunciation”, which he was writing up to the time he died in 2017 at age 85. It was published posthumously.

Category: Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, Vietnam, We Remember

Comments (6)

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  1. 2banana says:

    I kinda love…

    Here is my fruit salad rack consisting of a NDSM and an ARCOM. No other bling.

    And a MOH around my neck.

    Yeah – he went way off the rails later in life.

    Against the war in Iraq? Did he ever protest or pour blood at Biden, Kerry or Hillary who voted for it?

    A very selective outrage.

    • FuzeVT says:

      Selective indeed – as with most activists. Against the Contras? Ok, maybe they weren’t the best group of guys (I don’t know). Were they fighting against the first Communists in history that were sweet and wonderful and weren’t worse than the opposition?

      Still, pretty fricken studly actions in the ‘Nam. I takes amazing courage to defy the laws of probability for that long.

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    “…death didn’t hold much fear for me that day.” Or as Old Blue Fire/Tom Fool/Slow Trot/Stonewall Jackson may have said; “…the time of my death is already determined, I am as safe in battle as I am in my own bed.”

    BZ Good Padre, I will Salute you Sir! The attaboys you earned in looking after your flock in Viet Nam, in my opinion, outweigh any perceived “awsh^ts” that may have come later. Got to admire a Man standing up for his beliefs even if you don’t agree with them. Not saying that I didn’t agree with some of them. I had people at the Benning School for Wayward Children in ’90 when all that was going on. It affected us getting on Post for a visit once.

  3. ninja says:

    Mason,

    THAT was a VERY interesting what you covered on Charles Liteky.

    Was not expecting the “Rest of the Story”.

    Despite Liteky leaving his MoH at the Memorial, his headstone has him listed as a MoH Recipient (as it should be):

    https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/175586576/charles-james-liteky

    Another interesting link on him:

    http://www.charlieliteky.org/

    Thank You, again, Mason, for sharing.

  4. OmegaPaladin says:

    I blame the damned Commie ex-nun.