Four war veterans on a new `front line'. Their goal: avoid another Vietnam in Central America

It's day 33 for Charlie Liteky. The soft-spoken former Roman Catholic priest and decorated Vietnam veteran is in the second month of a ``fast for life'' to protest the Reagan administration's policy toward Central America.

Three other veterans are taking part in the fast. The four say that, unless there is a fundamental change in United States policy or the reemergence of an effective antiwar movement, such as existed in the early 1970s, they will continue to starve themselves.

``We're focusing particularly on Nicaragua, because another undeclared war is taking place there, after the manner of Vietnam,'' says Mr. Liteky. ``And we're saying that if it happens again, it's not going to be because we failed to protest.''

And they do protest. The fasters, who sustain themselves only by drinking spring water, have gone on speaking tours around the country. They hold daily vigils on the east steps of the US Capitol.

On a recent afternoon, about 30 partisans were on hand at the steps to hoist banners, distribute leaflets, pray, sing songs (one has been written about the fasters), and -- more than anything else -- talk about peace in Central America.

Liteky, who is now married, served as a chaplain in Vietnam for 2 years. He first made national headlines in July when he dropped the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to him in 1968 in a manila envelope and left it at the foot of the Vietnam Memorial. Liteky had won the medal for rescuing more than 20 men while under enemy fire in December of 1967, and is thought to be the first recipient in the 115-year history of the Medal of Honor to renounce the award.

Reflecting on his Vietnam experience, he says he sincerely believed at the time that the US was involved in a just cause. It was only recently, Liteky says, through reading about the war and seeing what he considers parallel developments in Central America, that he has acquired the clear conviction that the war in Vietnam was morally wrong and that a similar mistake is about to be made in this hemisphere.

``Central America actually took me back to Vietnam, because I saw the same things happening again.'' Liteky says.

The fast, unlike Mitch Snyder's hunger strikes on behalf of the homeless in recent years, has not been prominently featured by the national press. But it has spurred ``solidarity'' protests around the country, including a ``peace encampment'' on the Boston Common and vigils in over a dozen other cities and towns.

But Liteky, who has lost more than 25 pounds since he began fasting, says these actions are not enough to convince him to stop. ``What we're asking people to do is to put their bodies where their mouths are, to stand up for what they believe in,'' he explains.

This, he says, means getting involved in active protests and civil disobedience.

But he emphasizes that this does not mean others are being invited to join in the fast. Liteky says he has heard of several other people who were interested in joining the fast, ``but we're saying `no' to that.''

Still, several sympathy vigils organized in other cities have incorporated fasting in some form. A group in Maine has held a series of 26-hour fasts over weekends.

Those knowledgeable about veterans affairs are concerned that the fast could ``trigger'' other veterans, particularly those troubled by their wartime experiences, to take similar extreme actions.

The four veterans now involved say the idea for the fast emerged over the past summer, when they all came to Washington to lobby against legislation that provides aid to the contras fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. They gradually met one another during this time and began discussing methods of peaceful resistance. Liteky says that approval by Congress, on Aug. 13, of $100 million in aid to the Nicaraguan rebels was a turning point. He and George Mizo stopped eating on Sept. 1. Duncan Murphy, the one World War II veteran in the group, and Brian Willson joined the fast on Sept. 15. Critics of the fast have labeled the effort ``misguided at best.'' Indeed, even many sympathetic with the cause question the method being used by the veterans.

``You're more useful to this movement alive. We need you working these halls,'' said one Senate staff member who stopped by to chat with the veterans as they sat on the Capitol steps earlier this week.

The men have received thousands of pieces of mail, including 1,500 letters and post cards from West Germany and other West European countries. One letter, written in crayon by a girl from a Washington, D.C., middle school, says simply: ``Please don't fast your life away. Please don't fast; we care about you. I know your families care. Somewhere over the rainbow there will be happiness and peace.''

But the fasters say they can't wait for rainbows. ``In the case of Vietnam, we protested too late,'' says Mr. Mizo, who spent two years in Vietnam. He won, and has returned, the Purple Heart and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross.

Mizo says that before the protests against US involvement in the Vietnam conflict began, millions of people died, ``so we want the mechanism set up and in motion before we [US forces] invade Nicaragua.''

The reaction to the fast in Washington, where protesters are about as common as newspaper vending boxes, has been minimal. Michael Leaveck, spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans of America, says: ``We're just very sad that Vietnam vets -- or anyone -- would feel that they have to risk their lives in a field where the situation is so much beyond anyone's control.''

Some observers have suggested that the fasters are making a mistake by focusing on Congress, rather than an individual or small group of policymakers. They point out that Mr. Snyder, who used a series of hunger strikes to obtain concessions from the Reagan administration, targeted his protests at key officials, particularly the President.

``We completely ignored the President,'' says Liteky, ``except for a letter I wrote to him after renouncing the medal, because it's very evident that he's intransigent on this matter.''

Several members of Congress have expressed sympathy for the fasters and the attitudes they represent, while avoiding any references that might be construed as endorsements of the fast.

An effort is under way within Congress to find a point of compromise that might allow the men to end their fast, such as having a group of senators promise to filibuster against aid to the contras when the issue arises again in Congress next year.

But, for now, Charlie Liteky is settled into his seat on the steps of the Capitol. ``This is the highest we feel we can elevate the level of our protest,'' he says. ``We can't give anything more than our lives.''

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