The Medal of Honor is the United States military's highest honor. It is awarded for an act of valor that saves the lives of American troops in combat -- often at the risk of one's own.
Charles Liteky's Medal of Honor was no different, except in one respect.
He renounced his medal 19 year later.
Liteky, then a captain, was a Roman Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in December 1967. He was accompanying Company A, 4th Battalion, of the 199th Light Infantry, in Biên Hòa Province in South Vietnam when they suddenly found themselves ambushed and outnumbered.
Two soldiers from the 199th were lying wounded on the ground just 50 feet from an enemy machine-gun nest. The chaplain threw his body on the two men in an effort to protect them from the deadly weapon. Once he realized they weren't yet shot up, he dragged both back to the landing area to be extracted by helicopter.
Wounded in two places, he returned to the fight, pulling out more wounded soldiers and issuing Last Rites to the men who were dead and dying. When he was unable to lift the men, he put them on his belly and crawled, belly-up, to the landing zone.
Then, the helicopters began taking fire from the enemy. Liteky started directing medevac helos in and out of the ambush zone. Still wounded, the chaplain stayed with A Company until they could be relieved the next day. He rescued 23 soldiers from the ambush area, all while wounded himself.
It was Liteky's first time in combat.
In November 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Liteky with the Medal of Honor. Upon placing the medal on the chaplain, he told the chaplain, "Son, I'd rather have one of these babies than be president."
"I was 100 percent behind going over there and putting those Communists in their place," Liteky said. "I had no problems with that. I thought I was going there doing God's work."
Liteky left the Army as a major in 1971, after a second tour in Vietnam. Just a few years later, in 1975, he left the priesthood and would soon marry his wife. She introduced him to refugees from Central America, specifically El Salvador.
In the years that followed, he became a peace activist and anti-war protester because of the stories he learned from those refugees. He was especially concerned with American policies in Central America and U.S. support for Contra rebels in Nicaragua. He wanted the Army to shut down the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, because South and Central American troops would use what they learned there on their own people.
Liteky led a 47-day hunger strike to protest the school and was arrested for trespassing on Fort Benning in 1986. In 1990, he was sentenced to six months in federal prison for defacing portraits at the school with blood. He was sentenced to a year in prison for the same thing in 2000.
His motivation to march against conflict, the Reagan administration's policies and the School of the Americas, in particular, he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000, is the same motivation that prompted him to run into the jungles of Vietnam and pull out 23 soldiers.
He wanted to save lives.
"The reason I do what I do now is basically the same," he said. "It's to save lives. In the case of the School of the Americas, it's to stop training the military from the Third World, who take the training back and employ it in the oppression of their people."
To protest the ongoing policy, Liteky -- who earned the Medal of Honor under the name Angelo Liteky, placed his award at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, along with a letter to President Reagan, in 1986. He also renounced all the benefits and stipends that come with the award.
The renunciation of the Medal of Honor caught the Army's attention. Liteky was personally invited to attend a symposium on human rights by the then-commander of Fort Benning, Maj. Gen. John LeMoyne. The School of the Americas also changed its curriculum to include courses on democracy and international law.
Liteky's Medal of Honor was picked up by the National Park Service and is currently in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. He died in January 2017 at age 85.
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