[sixties-l] Prisoner of Conscience

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Fri Jun 22 2001 - 22:30:49 EDT

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    Prisoner of Conscience

    Melinda Welsh, Sacramento News and Review
    June 19, 2001

    The loudspeaker crackles on and the call goes out across the prison yard for
    inmate No. 83276-020 to report to the administration building. Within
    minutes, a lanky man in khakis with white hair and clear blue eyes enters the
    interrogation room. The prisoner is tanned and wears an unexpected beard. He
    has the large hands of a working man -- powerful and full of intent. The door
    is closed behind him and locked from the outside. A guard peeks in from an
    adjacent room through a glassed-in security window. The federal prisoner asks
    at once if the warden will "monitor" the interview as anticipated and advises
    a reporter that, if so, he intends to object because this would constitute a
    violation of First Amendment rights. The prisoner, ever ready to do battle
    for what he believes is a just cause, readies for a confrontation with the
    warden. But when his keeper shows no interest in witnessing the session, the
    prisoners tension is releaved and he takes a deep breath. "In truth," he
    says, "life in this level of security is not much worse than military boot
    camp." Charlie Liteky should know. He is now serving a one-year prison term
    in Lompoc Federal Prison near San Luis Obispo after being arrested for
    leading nonviolent protests against a Pentagon-funded school he claims
    violates the human rights of poor people in Latin America. And Liteky is
    certainly no stranger to the military. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam as
    an army chaplain and, for an exceptional act of valor, was awarded this
    countrys highest medal. "Im trying to help create a nonviolent world and
    to do so a person must face violence ... and death if necessary," writes the
    ex-priest in a prison diary that is read on-line by tens of thousands of
    religious people and peace activists across the country, including many here
    in Sacramento. It is no surprise to find Litekys journal writings full of
    references to Gandhi and Martin Luther King -- both of whom died fighting for
    justice and standing up for the poor, no matter what the personal
    consequences. Liteky pens the diary entries while standing on a creaky metal
    folding chair in his cell, leaning across a bunk bed that serves, for now, as
    his desk. He doesnt have it too bad at Lompoc. He lives in the "minimum
    security" section and gets along with most of the men. There are 300 of them
    here, crammed into two warehouse-like buildings. "I liken it to submarine
    living," says Liteky, who turned 70 years old in prison back in February.
    Thanks to the diary, Liteky remains active in the cause, able to communicate
    his thoughts and experiences despite his prison locale. "Charlie is my hero,"
    gushes Sacramentos Barbara Wiedner, a lifelong peace activist and friend of
    Litekys who sends him books and corresponds with him regularly in prison.
    "He has proven with his life that he is a hero." Still, in Litekys presence,
    one cant help but wonder what the word "hero" means and whether the word
    "crazy" might be a more accurate way to describe this man for his seeming
    willingness to do anything, including risk his life, for what he perceives to
    be a just cause. And for choosing, through his actions, to spend so much time
    in prison among criminals and convicts instead of out in the free world,
    sharing his passions with wife and friends. After one of his arrests for
    civil disobedience, a government prosecutor questioned Liteky about his
    lifes choices and remarked on his tendency to take the protesting "too far."
    One cant help but wonder, however, if Charlie Liteky has yet to take things
    as far as he intends. The dense jungle of the Bien Hoa Province in 1967 sets
    the stage for an exploration of how this man turns his beliefs into action.
    The air was thick that winter morning near Phuoc-Lac, 35 miles northeast of
    Saigon. The Vietnam War was heating up and Chaplain Liteky and other members
    of the U.S. Armys 199th Light Infantry Brigade set out early on patrol and
    tramped through mud and brush on a mission to check out a mortar site.
    Suddenly everything exploded. The brigade marched unknowingly into the edge
    of a Viet Cong battalion whose 500 men were so well dug in as to be
    invisible. "They stunned us," says Liteky. "Nobody knew they were there." The
    enemy opened machine gun and rocket fire on the leading 15 men in Litekys
    group and almost every one of them went down. A few died immediately, but
    most did not. The shock arrived, the pain moved in. Blood streamed from the
    mens chests, legs, arms. Then the screaming began. At first, Liteky did like
    the rest of the unwounded men and hugged the ground, praying not to get
    caught himself in the fusillade of fire. But then -- moved by compassion or
    courage, or both -- he jolted into action. Eyewitnesses on that day say
    Liteky rose from the ground and began moving through hostile fire toward the
    wounded. He crawled to them, knelt by their mangled bodies, presided over
    their agony. He administered last rites to the dying. "For some reason I
    didnt get hit," he says. One wounded man became entangled in the dense,
    thorny underbrush. Liteky broke the vines and freed the man, ignoring the
    intense gunfire. He lugged the man away to a clearing nearby. Another man was
    too heavy and badly wounded to carry, so Liteky rolled onto his back, placed
    the man on his chest and carefully, as if in slow motion, crawled the man
    back to the clearing using elbows and heels to push himself along. He
    returned to the action again. At one point, said a witness, Liteky crawled to
    within 15 meters of enemy machine guns so as to "place himself between the
    enemy and the wounded men." For most of the day, Chaplain Liteky did not
    carry a weapon, though he wore fatigues and looked the part of a soldier. "I
    did stop and pick up a gun," he remembers, "but then I remember thinking --
    that would be a helluva way for a priest to die! So I put it down." Later,
    when medevac helicopters arrived on the scene, Liteky reportedly stood up in
    the face of small arms and rocket fire and directed the helicopters into and
    out of the area. Captain Donald Drees, the company commander, told the
    military press that "Charlie Liteky inspired 50 men to hang on that day in
    the face of the most intense fire I have ever witnessed." The siege at Bien
    Hoa went on for eight hours. Liteky, who had not been wounded during the
    first three hours of the fight, was eventually hit and sustained shrapnel
    wounds in the neck and foot. All told, Liteky saved 23 men that day. For his
    actions, Liteky received the Congressional Medal of Honor. This medal is
    sacrosanct--less than 4,000 people have ever received it; only 150 of them
    are alive today. In November 1968, in the East Room of the White House,
    President Lyndon Johnson placed the medal around Litekys neck, saying, "Son,
    Id rather have one of those babies than be president." Today, Liteky is
    nonplussed about his actions on December 6, 1967. "I dont think we should
    even be awarded for compassionate action," he says. "Its just part of being
    a decent human being." Being a decent human being, after all, is why Liteky
    became an army chaplain in the first place. Its also why he joined the
    priesthood. After a youth spent skipping school and rebelling against his
    career military father, Liteky eventually straightened up and got an
    education. He decided to do the toughest, most honorable thing he thought a
    young man could do in life, and this meant joining the priesthood. In 1960,
    he joined up with the Missionary Servants Of The Most Holy Trinity, wore a
    collar and did Gods work on the East Coast for six years. When the call went
    out for religious men to volunteer for duty in Vietnam, Liteky was glad for
    the opportunity to serve.

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