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‘Shepherd in Combat Boots:’ Korean War Army Chaplain Awarded Medal of Honor

April 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Army chaplain and Catholic priest Father Emil Kapaun received the military's highest honor, the Medal of Honor, 60 years after he died as a prisoner during the Korean War. Kapaun took care of wounded soldiers even though it compromised his own safety. Jeffrey Brown has more on Kapaun and an excerpt from the White House ceremony.
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JEFFREY BROWN:  Finally tonight: an award that’s coming 60 years after the fact.

President Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on a Catholic priest who died in a Korean war POW camp.  Father Emil Kapaun never fired a bullet in the conflict or even carried a weapon.  Instead, he took care of wounded soldiers, often at the expense of his own safety and health, on the battlefield and later at a Chinese POW camp, where he would steal food to give to other prisoners.

Those who came home from the camp never stopped praising his actions, and that finally paid off.  After a military investigation and some legislation, their hopes of a medal for Father Kapaun became a reality this afternoon.

President Obama presented the award to Kapaun’s nephew in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Father Kapaun has been called a shepherd in combat boots.  His fellow soldiers who felt his grace and his mercy called him a saint, a blessing from God.

Today, we bestow another title on him, recipient of our nation’s highest military declaration, the Medal of Honor.

In the chaos, dodging bullets and explosions, Father Kapaun raced between foxholes, out past the front lines, and into no-man’s land, dragging the wounded to safety.  When his commanders ordered an evacuation, he chose to stay, gathering the injured, tending to their wounds.

When the enemy broke through and the combat was hand-to-hand, he carried on, comforting the injured and the dying, offering some measure of peace as they left this earth.  When enemy forces bore down, it seemed like the end, that these wounded Americans, more than a dozen of them, would be gunned down.

But Father Kapaun spotted a wounded Chinese officer.  He pleaded with this Chinese officer and convinced him to call out to his fellow Chinese.  The shooting stopped, and they negotiated a safe surrender, saving those American lives.

Then, as Father Kapaun was being led away, he saw another American, wounded, unable to walk, laying in a ditch, defenseless.  An enemy soldier was standing over him, rifle aimed at his head ready to shoot.  And Father Kapaun marched over and pushed the enemy soldier aside.  And then, as the soldier watched stunned, Father Kapaun carried that wounded American away.

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.

In the camps that winter, deep in the valley, men could freeze to death in their sleep.  Father Kapaun offered them his own clothes.  Their bodies were ravaged by dysentery.  He grabbed some rocks, pounded metal into pots and boiled clean water.  They lived in filth.  He washed their clothes and he cleansed their wounds.

The guards ridiculed his devotion to his savior and the almighty.  They took his clothes and make him stand in the freezing cold for hours.  Yet, he never lost his faith.  If anything, it only grew stronger.

Father Kapaun’s life, I think, is a testimony to the human spirit, the power of faith, and reminds us of the good that we can do each and every day, regardless of the most difficult of circumstances.

JEFFREY BROWN:  President Obama awarding the Medal of Honor to Father Emil Kapaun more than 60 years after his death as a prisoner in the Korean War.