Tuesday, December 06, 2011

TFH 12/6: Captain Angelo J. Liteky, USA

Military chaplains are men of God and non-combatants. Regardless, they frequently put themselves at great risk to minister to their flock: all our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen. On this day in 1967, one chaplain - a Catholic priest - went above and beyond the call of duty to not only minister to his men's souls, but to save their lives.


Rank and organization: Chaplain (Capt.), U.S. Army, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 199th Infantry Brigade. place and date: Near Phuoc-Lac, Bien Hoa province, Republic of Vietnam, 6 December 1967 . Entered service at: Fort Hamilton, N.Y. Born: 14 February 1931, Washington, D.C. Citation: Chaplain Liteky distinguished himself by exceptional heroism while serving with Company A, 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry, 199th Light Infantry Brigade. He was participating in a search and destroy operation when Company A came under intense fire from a battalion size enemy force. Momentarily stunned from the immediate encounter that ensued, the men hugged the ground for cover. Observing 2 wounded men, Chaplain Liteky moved to within 15 meters of an enemy machine gun position to reach them, placing himself between the enemy and the wounded men. When there was a brief respite in the fighting, he managed to drag them to the relative safety of the landing zone. Inspired by his courageous actions, the company rallied and began placing a heavy volume of fire upon the enemy's positions. In a magnificent display of courage and leadership, Chaplain Liteky began moving upright through the enemy fire, administering last rites to the dying and evacuating the wounded. Noticing another trapped and seriously wounded man, Chaplain Liteky crawled to his aid. 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. pausing for breath momentarily, he returned to the action and came upon a man entangled in the dense, thorny underbrush. Once more intense enemy fire was directed at him, but Chaplain Liteky stood his ground and calmly broke the vines and carried the man to the landing zone for evacuation. On several occasions when the landing zone was under small arms and rocket fire, Chaplain Liteky stood up in the face of hostile fire and personally directed the medivac helicopters into and out of the area. With the wounded safely evacuated, Chaplain Liteky returned to the perimeter, constantly encouraging and inspiring the men. Upon the unit's relief on the morning of 7 December 1967, it was discovered that despite painful wounds in the neck and foot, Chaplain Liteky had personally carried over 20 men to the landing zone for evacuation during the savage fighting. 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. Chaplain Liteky's actions reflect great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army. 

Posting Captain Liteky's tale of heroism required some reflection and consideration on my part. I wrote earlier today about my reservations. Liteky left the priesthood in 1975, eventually married, changed his name to Charles, and became a peace and social justice activist. That in of itself is not what troubled me; we're all free to both support a particular world view, and to change our minds as to what that world view is. No, what troubled me is that on July 29, 1986 he renounced his Medal of Honor by leaving it at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a protest to the policies of the Reagan Administration and our Nation. My first take was that this was an affront to all other Medal of Honor recipients and the courage and sacrifices they all made for the cause of Liberty and in defense of all of us. Disagree, fine - but keep sacred the award and what it represents.

Then, I read this article originally published on March 24, 2000 from the San Francisco Chronicle. In it, fellow Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bucha is quoted:
When I look at Liteky, I have respect for the courage of his views. It's difficult to be an iconoclast. It's much easier to go along. Men like Liteky are people who should force us to stop and think, and they should not be ostracized and criticized. They are entitled to their views, and perhaps if we listened we'd be better off.
He's right. I was wrong to be hesitant. Captain Liteky's heroism on December 6, 1967 is rightfully set apart from his later life, most of which I would likely have big philosophical problems with. For all our military chaplains - and all Americans - his actions under fire are to be commended and admired.

Liteky's Medal of Honor that he left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial today is part of the collection at the National Museum of American History in our Nation's capital.

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