The Lost Shepard (March 2012 Reflections)

On December 5, 1967, men of the U.S. 199th Light Infantry Brigade, located at a base camp 35 northeast of Saigon, were enjoying the relative quiet of the night.  Suddenly, a storm of mortar shells slammed into the area.  Fr. Angelo Liteky, a Catholic chaplain, who had not yet experienced combat, took cover.  With the men, he waited out the shelling from Viet Cong soldiers concealed in the surrounding jungle.

Early the next morning, two platoons set out to find and destroy the enemy mortar teams.  The chaplain accompanied them.  With bayonets fixed, the lead platoon, moved forward through the steamy jungle with its stagnant pools of water, tangles of vines and its dense undergrowth, looking for signs of the enemy.

Without warning, there was a withering barrage of fire from recoilless rifles, machine guns and Claymore mines.  The 100 or so Americans had stumbled onto a well-entrenched enemy battalion base camp, containing some 500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troops.

At the initial shock of battle, Fr. Liteky, like the rest of the soldiers, sought cover in the underbrush.  The initial onslaught was deadly.  Some 15 or so men in the leading element were shot immediately.  There was screaming and moaning as men died or cried for help.  The first platoon’s medic was severely wounded.  When the second platoon’s medic tried to move up, he was shot in the head and killed.

Soon, American firepower answered the enemy’s, and the GI’s established a defensive area surrounding a clearing that could be used as a landing zone for possible reinforcements or evacuation.  As enemy fire continued to tear through the jungle growth, the chaplain moved forward and soon came to a young soldier ripped apart by shrapnel.  Fr. Liteky cradled the man in his arms as he took his last breathes.  The chaplain gave him last rites and moved on.

An enemy mine exploded throwing two soldiers into the air.  Fr. Liteky rose and ran to the men, who were still alive, but only 15 meters from an enemy machine gun emplacement.  Badly wounded, the men could not walk.  The chaplain rolled onto his back, placed one man on his chest, and using his elbows and heels, crawled back to the defensive zone.  Then, he went forward again and brought back the second man.  Inspired by his courageous actions, the Americans rallied and began placing a heavy volume of fire on the enemy.

Shortly thereafter, there was a blinding explosion and shards of burning shrapnel from an enemy rocket struck the chaplain in the legs and neck.  He bandaged his own wounds, but refused to be evacuated.  When a soldier lost his helmet, the chaplain gave him his.  Now he gave his flack jacket to a wounded man.  At one point, Fr. Liteky found an injured soldier tangled in the dense, thorny underbrush.  Although intense enemy fire was directed at him, the chaplain broke the vines and carried the man to safety.

In eight hours of fighting, Fr. Liteky seemed to be everywhere, rescuing the wounded, bringing water to parched men, and giving last rites to the dying.  Several times when medivac helicopters arrived to evacuate the injured, the chaplain stood up in the face of small arms and rocket fire to direct the choppers into and out of the area.  Finally, American reinforcements arrived and the enemy withdrew.

In the battle, 21 Americans were killed and 74 wounded.  The chaplain was credited with personally rescuing over 20 men, carrying many to the landing zone for evacuation.  One soldier said “that bullets and shrapnel were curving around Father Liteky as he pulled all of the wounded back.  By all accounts, God was watching out for his own that day.”

When the fighting was over, Fr. Liteky still refused to be evacuated despite his wounds.  He stayed with the men that night, talking to them, hearing confessions, and easing their tensions.  For his heroic actions, Fr. Liteky was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Johnson in 1968.

Angelo Liteky was born in Washington, DC, in 1931.  But a change of assignment for his father, a career Navy non-commissioned officer, moved the family to Jacksonville, FL.  A tall, handsome, charismatic youth, Angelo was quarterback on his high school football team, attended the university of Florida, enrolled in a seminary and in 1960 was ordained a priest of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity.  For six years, he served in local parishes, and then at 35 years of age enlisted in the Army as a chaplain.  When his tour of duty ended in March 1968, a few months after the firefight, he extended for another six months.  Soon after returning to the states, he volunteered for another tour, before returning to civilian life as a parish priest in 1971.

Four years later, struggling with his conscience, Charles Liteky (as he was now known) was laicized and became a political activist on behalf of the downtrodden in Third World countries.  He patterned his method of dissent after the non-violent civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1986, at a press conference at the Vietnam Veterans’ memorial, Liteky rejected his award for valor, leaving it at the wall, along with a letter to President Ronald Reagan, which stated: “I find it ironic that conscience calls me to renounce the Congressional Medal of Honor for the same basic reason I received it – trying to save lives.”  Of the almost 3,500 recipients of the medal, he is the only one to have returned it.

Now in his early 80s, an avowed agnostic, Liteky has become something of an elder-figure for social dissention, spending most of his time writing, speaking and protesting U.S. foreign policies that he believes are unjust to people in Third World countries.

We know not how God will judge any of us, but as Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen expressed, “even in our weaknesses He loves us, for the Good Shepherd loves lost shepherds, as much as lost sheep.”

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