President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor Thursday to an Army chaplain from Kansas who risked his life dodging gunfire to provide medical and spiritual aid to wounded soldiers before dying in captivity more than 60 years ago during the Korean War.
"I can't imagine a better example for all of us, whether in uniform or not in uniform, a better example to follow," Obama said after presenting the nation's highest military award for valor to a nephew of Capt. Emil Kapaun during a ceremony in the White House East Room.
The Roman Catholic priest was recognized for helping to carry an injured American for miles as Chinese captors led them on a death march, and for risking his life to drag the wounded to safety while dodging explosions and gunfire.
In November 1950, after Chinese soldiers overran U.S. troops near Unsan, Kapaun defied orders to evacuate, knowing it meant he would most certainly be captured. He pleaded with an injured Chinese officer to call out to his fellow Chinese to stop shooting, an act that spared the lives of wounded Americans.
As Kapaun was being led away, he came across another wounded American in a ditch and an enemy soldier standing over Sgt. Herbert Miller, ready to shoot. Kapaun pushed the enemy aside and helped Miller as they were taken captive. They arrived days later, by foot, at the village in Pyoktong, where a POW camp eventually was established.
"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," Obama said.
At the camp, Kapaun cleaned others' wounds, convinced them to share scarce food, offered them his own clothes and provided spiritual aid and comfort. On Easter in 1951, he defied his communist captors by conducting Mass with a makeshift crucifix.
He died on May 23, 1951, at age 35, after six months in captivity.
The president said Kapaun showed that a touch of the divine exists even in hellish situations.
"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," Obama said.
The chaplain's nephew, Ray Kapaun, his face flush with emotion, accepted the medal from Obama on his uncle's behalf. Emil Kapaun's parents and his only sibling, a brother, are deceased.
"I don't think the enormity of what occurred today will actually hit me until my wife and I are heading home from this experience," Ray Kapaun, 56, said afterward. "A country boy from a small town in Kansas just received the nation's highest award for valor. That boy was my uncle."
He gave credit to fellow POWs who spent years lobbying for the Medal of Honor for the uncle he came to know only through stories others told.
"I didn't know him. We never met," Ray Kapaun said. "If not for these men I may have not had such a lifelong personal relationship with my uncle."
He said the medal would be given to Pilsen, Kan., where Emil Kapaun's former parish is located.
A separate effort also is underway seeking another honor for Kapaun: sainthood.