SAN FRANCISCO — Charlie Liteky, an Army chaplain in Vietnam who was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing more than 20 wounded men but later gave it back in protest and became a peace activist, has died.
Longtime friend Richard Olive said Liteky died Friday night at the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco. He was 85.
The Army awarded Liteky the highest military decoration for his actions on Dec. 6, 1967, when his company came under intense fire from an enemy battalion in Bien Hoa province. Despite painful wounds in the neck and foot, Liteky carried more than 20 men to the landing zone to be evacuated during the fierce firefight.
“Noticing another trapped and seriously wounded man, Chaplain Liteky crawled to his aid,” the Army’s official citation reads. “Realizing that the wounded man was too heavy to carry, he 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.”
He left the priesthood and in 1983, married former Catholic nun and peace activist Judy Balch in San Francisco. His wife introduced him to refugees from El Salvador, “teenagers, whose fathers had been killed and tortured. I didn’t believe it, but I kept going to more and more of these meetings and it became clear these people weren’t blowing in the wind,” Liteky told the San Francisco Chronicle in a March, 2000 interview.
Twenty years after his heroic actions in Vietnam, Liteky left the Medal of Honor — awarded under the name of Angelo J. Liteky — and a letter to President Ronald Reagan at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in protest of the country’s foreign policy in Central America, where U.S.-backed dictators were fighting bloody wars against left-leaning rebels.
After that, Liteky spent years protesting against the U.S. Army School of the Americas, an academy at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the U.S. Army trained soldiers from Central and South America and the Caribbean. He was sentenced to one year in federal prison in 2000 for entering the school without permission and splashing its rotunda with their own blood.
In 2003, he traveled to Baghdad with other peace protesters to bear witness to the war and work with children in an orphanage and at hospitals.
Olive said Saturday he remembers Liteky for his humility. “It was three years after I met Charlie and bonded a fast friendship that I learned he was a Medal of Honor recipient” when Liteky told him about his plans to renounce the medal, Olive said.
There are no plans for a funeral, Olive said.