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Today President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the legendary Roman Catholic priest from Pilsen, Kansas, the nation’s highest military honor, making him the sixth chaplain to receive the Medal of Honor.

Chaplain (CPT) Emil Kapaun was posthumously awarded the medal of honor for his selfless service and heroic efforts during the Korean War.  He repeatedly risked his own life to aid wounded soldiers and keep their faith while in captivity.

During the Battle of Unsan, Kapaun was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment. As Chinese Communist forces encircled the battalion, Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under direct enemy fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered Soldiers. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover wounded men, dragging them to safety. When he couldn’t drag them, he dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. As Chinese forces closed in, Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded.

Herbert Miller remembers the first time he saw Chaplain Kapaun.  It was November 1950 and Miller, an Army sergeant, had a gun pointed at his head by a Chinese soldier.  Miller lay in a frozen, blood-stained ditch in North Korea.  Hit by a hand grenade, his ankle broken, Miller figured he was a goner.  But then, seemingly out of nowhere, a soldier bearing a small cross on his helmet appeared.

“Chaplain Kapaun came from across the road,” Miller recalled. “He pushed that man aside. He picked me up and carried me. We were both captured at that time.  “I kept telling him, ‘You can’t carry me like that. You put me down,’ ” Miller said, worried he was too much of a physical burden for the slender Kapaun. “He said, ‘If I put you down, they’ll shoot you.’ ”

After he was captured, Kapaun and other prisoners were forced to march into enemy territory toward prisoner-of-war camps. During the march Kapaun led by example in caring for injured Soldiers, carrying the wounded on stretchers, and encouraging others to do their part.

Once inside the dismal prison camps, Kapaun risked his life by sneaking around the camp after dark, foraging for food, caring for the sick, and encouraging his fellow Soldiers to sustain their faith and their humanity. On at least one occasion, he was brutally punished for his disobedience, being forced to sit outside in subzero weather without any garments. When the Chinese instituted a mandatory re-education program, Kapaun patiently and politely rejected every theory put forth by the instructors. Later, Kapaun openly flouted his captors by conducting a sunrise service on Easter morning, 1951.

After coming down with a bout of dysentery accompanied by pneumonia, Kapaun was sent to the camp’s “hospital,” which POWs called the “death house,” a place with little-to-no medical care. As he was being carried to the hospital, he asked God’s forgiveness for his captors, and made his fellow prisoners promise to keep their faith.   Kapaun died two days later, on May 23, 1951, at the age of 35.

Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Americans. His extraordinary courage, faith, and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, and retain their faith in God and country.

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