Remembering a True American Hero
By John Ketwig
I am saddened to report that one of America's true heroes, Charlie Liteky, has gone to his final reward. At age 85, just six months after his beloved wife Judy died of cancer, he went to join her. He had spent his final months at the VA Hospice facility in San Francisco.
Charlie Liteky was a Catholic chaplain in Vietnam. On December 6, 1967 he went out with a patrol and they were ambushed by a large enemy force. Charlie crawled out under intense enemy fire and dragged more than 20 wounded soldiers back, coming within 15 meters of an enemy machine gun, placing his body between the gun and the wounded. One of the wounded was too heavy to carry, so Charlie placed the man on his chest and crawled on his back, using his heels and elbows, and brought the man to safety. He gave last rites to soldiers under fire, directed the medevac helicopters in despite heavy fire, and he was wounded in the neck and foot. For this action, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Johnson. Well after the war, Charlie left the service and the priesthood and married a former nun, Judy, who introduced him to numerous victims of the American funded and equipped war in El Salvador. In 1986, he went to Central America to see for himself, and on July 29, 1986 he placed his medal and a letter to the president at the base of the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, DC to protest America's activities in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The National Park Service retrieved the medal and letter, and they are on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. On September 1, 1986, along with three other veterans, he began a water-only fast upon the Capital steps to protest, an action that mobilized a movement that prevented the US from openly invading Nicaragua. In later years he was a frequent protester at Fort Benning's School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. In May of 2003, he went to Baghdad as a human shield, hoping to discourage the Shock and Awe bombing that was devastating that Iraqi city. An autobiography is expected to be published later this year.
I was privileged to know Charlie Liteky, and to spend time with him on a number of occasions. I do not recognize many heroes from the war in Vietnam, but Charlie Liteky was a true American hero there, and throughout his later years. He was a quiet-spoken, spiritual and thoughtful man, aghast and bewildered by man's cruelty and institutionalized killing of other human beings. Charlie Liteky was an inspiration to all who knew him, and to anti-war activists around the world. May he find peace with Judy in a very special place in heaven.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of "...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam". First published by Macmillan in 1985, it is still available at most bookstores.