Obama Awards Army Chaplain Medal of Honor 62 Years After Service in Korean War

The Rev. Emil Kapaun posthumously receives the Medal of Honor.

April 11, 2013, 12:58 PM

April 11, 2013 -- Father Emil Kapaun was called a "shepherd in combat boots," a hero who fought with faith and valor instead of guns and grenades.

Sixty years after saving hundreds of soldiers in the dark days of the Korean War, Kapaun was honored today with the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award.

"This is the valor we honor today -- an American soldier who didn't fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live," Obama said at a White House ceremony.

When Chinese forces entered the war with a massive surprise attack, his commanders ordered an evacuation, but Kapaun stayed to help his fellow soldiers. He gathered the injured, tended to their wounds and ultimately helped negotiate a safe surrender.

As his captors were leading him away, Kapaun noticed a wounded American soldier, laying defenseless in a ditch. An enemy soldier stood over him, a gun pointed at his head. Undeterred, Kapaun marched over and pushed the enemy solider aside, saving his comrade.

Today, that soldier, Sgt. Herbert Miller, wept as he sat in the front row of the East Room of the White House, listening to Obama retell his story.

But Kapaun's bravery didn't end there. "He carried that injured American, for miles, as their captors forced them on a death march. When Father Kapaun grew tired, he'd help the wounded soldier hop on one leg. When other prisoners stumbled, he picked them up. When they wanted to quit -- knowing that stragglers would be shot -- he begged them to keep walking," Obama explained.

In the prisoner-of-war camp that winter, Kapaun made it his mission to help keep his fellow Americans alive, offering them his clothing and sneaking past guards to forage for food. "They lived in filth. He washed their clothes and he cleansed their wounds," Obama explained.

Beyond the physical needs, Kapaun tended to their spirits. "At night, he slipped into huts to lead prisoners in prayer, saying the Rosary, administering the sacraments, offering three simple words: 'God bless you.' One of them later said that with his very presence he could just for a moment turn a mud hut into a cathedral," Obama said.

"That faith -- that they might be delivered from evil, that they could make it home -- was perhaps the greatest gift to those men; that even amidst such hardship and despair, there could be hope; amid their misery in the temporal they could see those truths that are eternal; that even in such hell, there could be a touch of the divine. Looking back, one of them said that that is what 'kept a lot of us alive,'" he said.

The horrendous conditions, however, finally took their toll on Kapaun. As he was taken by guards to a "death house," where he would be left to die, he blessed his captors. "Forgive them," he said, "for they know not what they do."

After seven months as a prisoner, Kapaun died of starvation and pneumonia, and was buried in an unmarked grave. His remains are still somewhere in North Korea.

Today, Kapaun is a candidate for sainthood and now a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

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