By Andy Massanet, Fort Riley Public AffairsMay 10, 2017
Pilsen, Kan. -- For one day, Chap. (Capt.) Emil Kapaun came alive.
A special unit ministry team training event took chaplains and religious affairs specialists from Fort Riley to Pilsen, Kansas, April 20, to learn more about the life and death of Medal of Honor recipient Kapaun, for whom Fort Riley's Kapaun Chapel is named.
Featured guests of the event were Ray and David Kapaun, nephews of Kapaun, and John Hotze of the Wichita Diocese and the Episcopal delegate of the Cause for Canonization of Kapaun.
Between Ray and Hotze, chaplains and assistants learned more about the Army chaplain who could be named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
From his recollections in speaking with family members, "he (Emil Kapaun) was just like everyone else," Ray said. "He never set himself apart as being special and he never let circumstances define who he was."
Ray also mentioned his uncle's natural optimism, something that was inherited in spite of the modest means with which the Kapaun family lived in Pilsen.
"They would have been considered poor," Ray said. "They didn't have a lot."
That optimism would be tested when Kapaun, already a veteran of the Burma campaign during World War II, joined the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division in the Korean War. Soldiers of that battalion were captured Nov. 2, 1950, by North Korean and Red Chinese forces after the Battle of Unsan.
In spite of cruel winter temperatures, malnutrition and mistreatment, Kapaun ministered to his men, regardless of their religious background. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he used the cover of nighttime darkness to forage for food, care for the sick and encourage his fellow Soldiers "to sustain their faith and their humanity."
Kapaun died alone May 23, 1951.
"I was very enriched, encouraged and emboldened in my ministry by learning more of Chap. Kapaun's ministry," said Chap. (Capt.) Christopher Campbell, battalion chaplain of the 97th Military Police Battalion at Fort Riley. "I found it fascinating and encouraging that he was bold enough to approach an enemy Soldier and push him aside to save the life of one of his own, almost in such a way that communicated his sincere faith that God would protect him as he protected his Soldier."
Campbell refers to a famous episode during the forced march of the 3rd Battalion to a prison camp in which Kapaun risked his life to save a fellow Soldier who had sustained a broken ankle. Such a condition would have meant certain death for the Soldier had Kapaun not intervened. That Soldier survived his time in the prison camp and lived a long life thereafter, according to both Hotze and Ray Kapaun.
For the religious affairs specialists, the Pilsen visit brought far greater detail to a man only briefly discussed in their Advanced Individual Training.
"We found out about him in AIT, but we quickly went over him; he is in the school's museum," said Spc. Lillian Lewis, an RSA for the Fort Riley Garrison Chaplain's Office.
"At AIT we learned he was an Army chaplain and a POW. But (on this trip) we learned who he really was and found that he was just a regular guy. When he was with his men, he just wanted to be called 'Kapaun.'"
Such modesty, for Lewis, demonstrated Chap. Kapaun's spiritual nature.
"It showed how much a man of God he was," she said. "And we learned that he went through the same thing as the other Soldiers. What he said to them became more than just advice. Because you have to have empathy. And it helps if you have gone through the same experiences. And that's why Chap. Kapaun was so helpful to his Soldiers."
Cpl. Whitney Feaster, also an RSA for the Fort Riley GCO, agrees her introduction to Chap. Kapaun at AIT was brief.
"It wasn't as in-depth as what we received with this visit," Feaster said. "I learned and understood more. He was very selfless and was more concerned with helping Soldiers than with helping himself. That's very important because if you aren't in tune with the Soldiers, they are going to trust you. Chap. Kapaun built that trust just being there with the Soldiers."
Learning more about Kapaun's experiences was invaluable, said Chap. (Lt. Col.) Bill Sager, deputy senior chaplain, especially for young RSAs.
"Especially in the garrison setting, for many (RSAs) this is their first assignment," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Bill Sager, deputy senior chaplain. "So this (learning about Kapaun) really teaches them the impact of war as well as the impact they can have on Soldiers."
Sager added that Kapaun's humility was key to his heroism.
"(He) was faithful to what was right and he continued to do what was in his nature," Sager said. "And that, I think, was what made him a hero. He showed he had a purpose beyond himself and his circumstances. The circumstances didn't distract him from who he was."
Sager also said the kind of trust exemplified in Kapaun's circumstances is vitally important, and the role of RSAs in the modern Army facilitates that trust.
"Since they are enlisted men and women, RSAs have a different relationship with the rank and file Soldiers that a chaplain doesn't have," Sager said. "So we have to build trust. We all (Chaplains and RSAs) must pause and truly listen to someone to understand them and gain their trust. You can't work in the chaplaincy without that. But also, if the unit ministry team has strong chemistry. Soldiers see that and the assistants can tell his or her friends 'that chaplain can be trusted.' Chap. Kapaun, was able to build that trust spending good time with his men; 'good' meaning a close positive interaction."