Medal of Honor winners don’t often have clerical collars. But it was heroism and self-sacrifice of the highest order that was acclaimed at the White House this month when the Rev. Emil J. Kapaun, an Army chaplain who died in the Korean War, was posthumously awarded the military’s highest decoration for valor.
Kapaun was serving with the Third Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during the Battle of Unsan in November 1950. Moving from foxhole to foxhole, the chaplain braved enemy fire to comfort soldiers and pull the wounded to safety. After a forced march brought Kapaun to a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp, he repeatedly risked his life by sneaking out to forage for food, offering his clothes to men who were freezing to death, and flouting the Communist Chinese guards by conducting religious services.
The Army credits Kapaun with saving hundreds of American lives. He is just the seventh chaplain to earn the Medal of Honor — and the only one who is a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
In May 1951, stricken with dysentery and pneumonia, Kapaun died in captivity. His remains were never recovered, but surviving POWs never stopped talking about their chaplain, or seeking official recognition for his heroism. “A shepherd in combat boots,” Obama called him. “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.”