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Army chaplain may be awarded Medal of Honor

October 18, 2009|John Milburn | Milburn writes for the Associated Press.

TOPEKA, KAN. — As his fellow prisoners of war returned home from the Korean War, they shared stories of sacrifice by the Rev. Emil Kapaun, a humble Roman Catholic priest from Kansas.

The prisoners of the 8th Cavalry Regiment spoke of how Kapaun, an Army chaplain, continued to look after his men even when he was wounded and sick. Risking his life, Kapaun would sneak out after dark to scrounge food, fashion makeshift containers to collect water and wash their soiled clothes.

Kapaun died at the camp hospital seven months after the Chinese captured him in 1950. More than half a century later, the Army's top civilian leader has recommended that Kapaun, also a candidate for sainthood, receive the Medal of Honor.

Helen Kapaun, the chaplain's sister-in-law, said her husband, Eugene, 85, had prayed that he would live to see his brother honored. "We hoped it would have been sooner," Helen Kapaun said. "I think there were a lot of circumstances that had to be finished in God's hands. Now, it proves that he was a saintly, holy man."

In one of his final acts as Army secretary, Pete Geren wrote to Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) saying he agreed that Kapaun was worthy of the honor. Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also endorsed honoring Kapaun.

Seven chaplains have received the Medal of Honor, including Vincent Capodanno, a Navy chaplain from New York who was killed in Vietnam in 1967. In 2006, the Vatican declared Capodanno was a Servant of God -- a step toward canonization.

Tiahrt began efforts to honor Kapaun in 2000 after reading about his life. "It's hard to imagine living through something like that. He handled it like a saint," Tiahrt said. "This is the kind of person that we ought to emulate."

Congress must approve legislation sending Kapaun's award to President Obama, which Tiahrt hopes will happen by year's end.

The Rev. John Hotze of the Wichita, Kan., diocese said Kapaun's recognition had been a long time in the making. "He saw it as a role of serving his men and laying down his life for his men," said Hotze, who has a website honoring Kapaun. "It's like Christ coming to the world to serve instead of being served. That's what Father Kapaun was all about."

Kapaun was born in 1916 near the central Kansas town of Pilsen, about 60 miles north of Wichita. Ordained in 1940, he was a parish priest and auxiliary chaplain at the Herrington Army Air Base near Pilsen.

During World War II he was sent to Southeast Asia, where he drove thousands of miles to say Mass, often using his Jeep hood as an altar.

Kapaun returned to Kansas, but when the Korean War began he pleaded with his bishop to let him go back in the Army.

"They needed chaplains. He loved the service boys very much," said Helen Kapaun, whose marriage was one of the last civilian ceremonies Kapaun performed before he left for Korea.

As part of its sainthood groundwork, the Vatican has sent an investigator to Kansas to visit with the family of Chase Kear, who was injured when he fell on his head during pole vault practice in 2008. He cracked his skull and had swelling of his brain, and his family prayed for Kapaun to intercede on Kear's behalf.

Hotze said that medical records were being compiled and translated to bolster Kapaun's case. Kear, now 20, is attending Hutchinson Community College and driving again.

Paula Kear, Chase's mother, said members of Sacred Heart parish in Colwich have long prayed to Kapaun for those needing healing.

"I think it's about time and well deserved. I hope that it helps," she said. "We just prayed constantly."

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