During the year Charlie Liteky spent in Lompoc federal prison, he lost 26
pounds, marked his 70th birthday, listened to the life stories of inmates one-
third his age and worshipped weekly in a Lakota Sioux sweatlodge.
A former Catholic priest and Vietnam War hero, Liteky also did a great deal
of reading about Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and
an outspoken pacifist until her death in 1980 at the age of 83.
"I knew about her, of course, but I never realized the extent of her
pacifism or how controversial it made her," said Liteky. "She remained a
pacifist throughout World War II. It cost her a lot of friends and supporters
even in her own movement. That's a kind of courage that's rare."
Liteky knows more than the average person about courage -- and controversy.
As an Army chaplain in Vietnam, he dragged 23 wounded soldiers to safety
during a firefight in Ben Hoa province in 1967. For that he received the Medal
of Honor, our nation's highest award for combat heroism.
Twenty years later, married and no longer a priest, Liteky left his medal
at the base of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington to protest U.S. aid to the
Contras in Nicaragua. He'd already tried a 47-day, water-only fast on the
steps of the Capitol with another vet. It left both of them near death.
In 1990, Liteky and his wife, Judy, a former Catholic nun who had
introduced Charlie to the world of peace activism, were drawn to small
protests at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. A training ground
for U.S.-backed Latin American warriors (and the occasional assassin and
dictator), the school now attracts tens of thousands of protesters each
Those who "cross the line" and trespass on the base are often arrested. The
last time Charlie crossed, he was rewarded with a maximum sentence: two
consecutive six-month terms in the Federal Correctional Institute at Lompoc.
Fellow parishioners at the Litekys' San Francisco church, St. John of God,
helped Judy finance monthly visits to the prison 30 miles north of Santa
Barbara. A college math teacher, she became Charlie's eyes, ears and voice at
School of the Americas protest rallies and fundraisers.
Charlie spent his last 70 days in Lompoc in solitary because he refused to
work for what he considers an immoral prison industry. Visits with Judy were
brief and very public. She watched the relatives of other prisoners -- almost
all of them young, in prison for drug-related crimes -- try to maintain some
shred of family structure.
"It's a shock," said Judy. "The parents, grandparents -- to see little kids
waiting -- just the intensity of their bodies -- waiting for Dad to come out
of this hallway from behind steel doors. I kept thinking: We can do better
Charlie was released in July. His plan, after a spate of speaking
engagements, was to write a book about his year in prison in the context of
all he has learned about U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam.
Since Sept. 11, though, he has found it hard to make time for the book; his
message of peaceful conflict resolution has taken on a whole new dimension.
Questions from audiences are more confrontational and demanding. After a
speech in Sacramento, where he spoke about struggling to respond to violence
without violence, he wrote to President Bush.
"I'd talked that night about my own arduous journey toward non-violence --
emotionally, spiritually, every way," he said. "I told the president that I
hoped before he proceeded, he'd recall what we did in Vietnam, in Panama, all
the innocent lives we've taken while seeking what we thought to be legitimate
Liteky asked Bush to ask himself if the United States was "in any way
responsible" for the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, to remember
that our economic sanctions alone "are starving 5,000 Iraqi kids to death each
He also shared a major theme of his post-Sept. 11 message:
"If there is any enemy here, it's violence. We need to protest and boycott
violence because we eat, drink and sleep it in our country; we are entertained
by it. If we don't stop, we're just going to join in an unending cycle of
violence, like an escalator that keeps going up and up and up."
On Nov. 16, the Litekys plan to travel to Fort Benning once again to
protest the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere
Institute for Security Cooperation). Neither intends to cross the line this
year, but future arrests, especially for Charlie, are likely.
"When I was in Lompoc, I was thinking maybe I could retire after my 70th
birthday," Liteky said with a wry smile. "But then I look at Dorothy Day -- my
God, I've got at least 10 more years to go."
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle