WASHINGTON, D.C. — Herbert Miller never thought he would see this day.
Not as he lay in that ditch in North Korea, unable to move, his ankle shattered by a hand grenade.
Not in those miserable months of captivity in a prisoner of war camp, where he and his fellow soldiers survived on starvation rations and the sense of hope instilled by their Army chaplain, Father Emil Kapaun.
Not in the years that followed the end of the war in Korea, when Miller and many other fellow POWs told anyone who would listen that Kapaun was the reason they survived and that he deserved the highest honors his country and his religion could bestow.
And yet there he was in the East Room of the White House on Thursday, watching President Obama present the Medal of Honor posthumously to Kapaun – even singling out Miller as one of the POWs the humble Kansas priest rescued.
“Never in my life” did he expect to hear a president say his name, Miller said quietly, his face bathed in afternoon sunshine streaming through a White House window.
Miller attended the White House ceremony with his wife, Joyce. Later, at a reception sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, Ray Kapaun – Emil’s nephew, who accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of his family – sought out Miller and asked him to hold the medal for awhile.
Wichita Bishop Michael Jackels, who will be installed as the archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa, in late May, called Thursday’s ceremony “almost like a secular canonization” of Kapaun, who died in captivity in 1951 at the age of 35.
“It was very moving,” Jackels said of the medal ceremony. “I thought, ‘I have to get a copy of the president’s speech and send it to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints,’ because I don’t think you’d even need to prove a miracle to canonize somebody of the caliber of the person he described in that speech.”
Kapaun has been declared a Servant of God by the Roman Catholic Church, the first step on the path to sainthood. Vatican officials – specifically the Congregation for the Causes of Saints – continue to review the case for declaring him a saint.
“I was just very moved that our country would recognize and honor the kind of values that I think are held in esteem by Americans in general,” Jackels said.
They’re the same values the Wichita Diocese is highlighting in promoting the case for Kapaun’s canonization, he said.
“It’s a tribute to his family and the way people in Kansas look out for one another, and hopefully it’s still true,” Jackels said.
Closure for some
Tom Schuler drove more than five hours from his home in North Carolina to witness Thursday’s ceremony.
He called it “honorable” for Kapaun to receive the Medal of Honor and for some of his fellow prisoners of war to be able to witness the ceremony first-hand.
“It’s neat that some of them are able to see closure to this,” Schuler said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t done when most of them were alive to see it.”
Schuler’s father, Patrick, was among those who died before Kapaun was given the nation’s highest military honor. But Tom Schuler – like the children of many soldiers who served with Kapaun in battle or suffered with him in a prisoner of war camp – grew up on the story of Father Kapaun.
Patrick Schuler was a chaplain’s assistant and “bodyguard” for Kapaun, and he was immortalized in the photo of Kapaun celebrating Mass using the hood of a Jeep as his altar. Schuler is the soldier kneeling in front of Kapaun next to a cornfield.
Tom Schuler found that photo years later in an album his father cherished.
“It was something I always brought out and looked at as a kid,” Schuler said. “I was just always intrigued by it.”
His father would never talk about the war, but he would talk about the Army chaplain.
“After the war, he had an interest in being a (religious) brother and in the priesthood,” Schuler said of his father. “I don’t know if that was something (intentional), following in Father Kapaun’s footsteps, but I know he very much made an impact on my father’s life.”
Tom Schuler enlisted in the Marines in 1972, serving in Vietnam, and became a warrant officer in 1986.
“One of the things he pointed out when I got commissioned (as an officer) is, ‘Something you should always do is take care of your men and remember where you are from,’ ” Schuler said. “I think he learned that from Kapaun.”
Schuler said his father felt guilty for the rest of his life about fleeing from the advancing Chinese at the battle of Unsan. Kapaun and Patrick Schuler already had evacuated a load of wounded soldiers and went back to look for more.
“Stay with the Jeep and say your prayers,” Kapaun told Patrick Schuler. “I’ll be back.”
Kapaun never returned.
“He wished he’d stayed back” to protect Kapaun, Schuler said of his father.
Tom Schuler himself has become philosophical about it.
“I wouldn’t be here today” if his father had stayed with Kapaun, he said. “My son is a minister working for the Lord. It had a way of working out for God’s glory.”
His father died on Kapaun’s birthday, Schuler said, and the formal announcement of Kapaun receiving the Medal of Honor came on his father’s birthday.
Those may have simply been coincidences. But given the importance of Kapaun in his father’s life, Schuler said, the timing of those milestones seems poignantly appropriate.