WASHINGTON, D.C. — A few hours after he accepted his Uncle Emil’s Medal of Honor from the president of the United States, Ray Kapaun walked into the lobby of the Pentagon Sheraton Hotel in Arlington, Va., where he and his uncle’s Korean War comrades are staying.
In his hands, Kapaun held the Medal, with its sky blue sash, encased now in a small wood display box.
Several aged heroes from the war stood in the lobby, including former U.S. Army Master Sergeant Herbert Miller, an old soldier who now talks with a crack in his voice and whose hands shake so much from an affliction that makes it hard for him to sign his name.
At the White House, Ray had sat in the front row with his relatives and listened to the president describe the heroics of his uncle. Miller and his wife, Joyce, also sat in the front row, off to the president’s left, with some of the other eight soldiers who had been in the death camp with Kapaun.
The Millers fought to maintain their composure as the president described how Sgt. Miller and Father Kapaun first met — at the bloody battle of Unsan, where thousands died.
“Then, as Father Kapaun was being led away (as a prisoner of war) he saw another American — wounded, unable to walk, laying in a ditch, defenseless. An enemy soldier was standing over him, rifle aimed at his head, ready to shoot. And Father Kapaun marched over and pushed the enemy soldier aside. And then as the soldier watched, stunned, Father Kapaun carried the wounded American away.”
Some members of the audience wept as the president recited this story in a solemn, deliberate cadence. Miller was that soldier, lying in the ditch. He had only seconds to live until Kapaun appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and shoved the soldier’s gun away.
More than 60 years later, with the White House ceremony fresh in their memories, Kapaun’s nephew walked in and saw Joyce and Herbert Miller standing among a group of admirers in a corner of the lobby.
Miller had signed his autograph moments before, when it took him nearly a minute to write “Herbert Miller” in a shaky but legible script.
Kapaun’s nephew gently pushed the Medal of Honor into Miller’s hands, and told him he should hold it for a while.
Miller couldn’t say no to that, a bashful grin creeping onto his face.
And he held it steady.