April 12, 2013 -- SecArmy McHugh's remarks at Chaplain Kapaun Hall of Heroes Induction Ceremony

By Secretary of the Army John McHughApril 17, 2013

Thank you, good afternoon. I won't repeat all the welcomes that the Chief [of Staff of the Army General Odierno] offered, but I do want to recognize, of course, Secretary Hagel. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for leading the sponsorship of this great event. And also taking time out of your enormously busy schedule to join us.

To the Members of the DOD Family, the Army Family -- Civilian as well as Uniformed -- thank you, not just for joining us, but for the great sacrifices that you put forward on behalf of the military of this great Nation.

A special thanks to my former colleague, Pat Roberts; Congressman Pompeo, welcome, Gentlemen. Just remember our gracious hospitality at our next hearing, please [laughter].

To the Kapaun Family, Ray and Lee, and so many others, cousins, nephews: Thank you. Not just for helping to bringing this story to us, but for letting us share it in what I hope you are beginning to understand is such a special opportunity for us.

I had a chance to spend some time with the Chaplain's friends, his colleagues, his battle buddies, his spiritual buddies from the Korean Theater at lunch, incredible men, and we are so thrilled that they are here today helping us see the true story of a great American and a great American patriot.

Today, as the Chief [of Staff of the Army] said, truly are gathering to honor a remarkable soldier, a man of unquestioned and uncommon courage, and a man of truly unbridled faith, Army Chaplain, Captain Emil Kapaun.

Father Kapaun's name and exploits will be from this day forward, forever enshrined in the Hall of Heroes, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest military award.

And it probably goes without saying he joins a very elite company of American heroes, two of whom are with us here today who we deeply appreciate, who put self below service, who displayed acts of personal valor that truly were above and beyond the call of duty.

But as elite and as small that small band, that small company is among recipients of the Medal of Honor, Father Kapaun's story is, in itself, wholly unique, wholly different. He didn't charge a pillbox; he didn't defeat an enemy battalion or brigade or division by himself. Rather, Father Kapaun's only weapons were his steely defiance that inspired his fellow prisoners of war; the words he spoke, which brought comfort to the Soldiers with whom he served; and a simple piece of purple ribbon that he wore around his neck, a mark of his chaplaincy, his priesthood.

But don't make any mistake about it; Father Kapaun was a Soldier; and a Soldier in the purest, in the truest sense of the word.

He was a man who volunteered for service for Korea, even as he had already served his country in the Chaplain's Corp during World War II. During the Korean War, the good and brave father moved fearlessly under enemy fire to bring aid and comfort to the wounded and to the dying. And after being captured, he continued to lead, he continued to serve, securing food for starving POWs. And in so doing, feeding not just their bodies, but their souls and their spirits.

Reading Father Kapaun's story, I can't help but think he was part Audi Murphy and part Father Flanagan.

In his memoir, Murphy, who was also a Medal of Honor recipient, wrote that when a chaplain visited a company, and he prayed for what he described "the strength of our arms and for the souls of the men…we do not consider his denomination. Helmets come off. Catholics, Jews and Protestants bow their heads and finger their weapons." "It is," Murphy said, "front-line religion."

So it was, in that Korean prison camp, where Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims, even those who declared no particular faith, drew courage and drew strength and they drew hope from a priest, a priest who one survivor called the "best foot soldier" he had ever known.

To be sure, Father Kapaun was a man of contradictions. A man of faith, he was at the same time blunt. It is said he often cursed. A servant of God, he nevertheless stole food from his captors; and that was an act that troubled him -- something he found at odds with his faith - even though because of it, unquestionably, many prisoners' lives were saved. Father Kapaun rectified this contradiction by praying to St. Dismas, the thief who, it is taught, was crucified at the right hand of Jesus Christ.

There's no question that he was a resourceful man; and that's a trait he may have perfected early in life. There's a story that's told that when the good Father was about seven years old, and not yet the good Father, it was determined that he was old enough to milk the family cow. Now, where I and Herb Miller come from in upstate New York, there are more cows than people, (Senator Roberts can talk about cows being from Kansas [laughter]. And getting to milk that family cow, I can tell you it was a pretty big deal. Of course, it was important to the family for another reason, it would freed up Emil's mom to work more often in the fields with his dad. But that couldn't just happen. Before his mom could really hand over the reins, or hand over the udders in this case, she needed to train Emil on the proper way to milk the cow. And the training from mom to son, by all accounts, went very, very well. And finally, his mom felt confident enough to hand over responsibility for milking that cow to that 7 year old young man.

On his first day without mother's supervision, Emil led the cow to a fence post, tied the cow up, just as his mom had taught him. But that cow refused to be milked. Every time, and at every angle, that little Emil tried to approach the cow, the cow would just step away. Emil stood there for a moment, he stared at the cow -- as seven year olds are prone to do -- trying to figure out how to make it all work and then it hit him. The problem was that the cow was used to seeing him, it was used to seeing his mom. So he went into the house, put on one of his mom's dresses, came out, milked the cow. Problem solved [laughter]. Resourcefulness even at such a young age.

Much later, as we all know now, Father Kapaun was entered into the process for Sainthood in the Catholic Church, where he has been declared a servant of God. And the stories that led to that moment are captivating. And I'd like to just briefly share a few with you.

In one story, a 12-year old's kidneys had shut down, as an auto-immune disorder ravaged her body. Her family prayed for a miracle, the family prayed to Father Kapaun. At one point, her lungs were so damaged that doctors said even if she survived, that she would be on oxygen for the rest of her life. Six months after leaving the hospital, she was playing competitive soccer -- no medical explanation available.

In another account, a young runner collapsed during a 5 kilometer charity race; his arms and legs convulsing and soon after, he lay there without a pulse and without a heartbeat. As the young man's uncle -- a physician, tried feverishly to revive him, that young man's 14-year old cousin prayed to Father Kapaun. Through a combination of fate, coincidence -- many believe through a divine intervention -- that young runner nearly presumed dead is with us today, Nick Dellasega. Is Nick with us today? [Nick stands, applause].

And there's one more. In yet another remarkable story, a young pole vaulter crushed his skull in an accident in his sport, he, too, was nearly written off for dead. Not long after his family began praying to Father Kapaun, the boy awoke, and in doing so, mystified doctors. Soon after that, he began talking and, after less than a month in the hospital, went home wearing a t-shirt bearing the words "Miracle Man." And the Miracle Man, Chase Kear, is also here with us here today. Chase? Stand up. [Chase stands, applause]. You may not have recognized it at the time, you may not recognize it now, but you have a very important role in this story. Thanks for being here.

The Wichita Eagle carried these and other stories about Father Kapaun's life. And in the story of the young girl, the newspaper noted that a Vatican official came to check out the facts. He met with that young lady's doctors and, through an interpreter, said it was a good thing that such good Catholic doctors came forward to tell her story.

No, he was told, the doctors weren't Catholic, but they were Protestant. The Vatican official, according to the story, seemed stunned. Even the Protestants, he thought, think it's a miracle [laughter].

Regardless of one's faiths, regardless of one's beliefs, we know that Father Kapaun was a remarkable man, and a man who continues to inspire us all.

During a Palm Sunday sermon in 1941, when Father Kapaun was only 25 years old, he said that, and I quote, "a great leader exerts a most powerful influence over the hearts and minds of his followers" end quote.

From a Korean Prison Camp to a Witchita hospital room to the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes, Chaplain Emil Kapaun remains, to this day, a powerful influence, whose courage, whose valor and selfless sacrifice continue to exert a powerful influence over each and every one of us, and we are grateful, we are humbled, at long last to honor him today.

Thank you, all. And God Bless America.