The national debate about whether to award Father Emil Kapaun the Medal of Honor has now reached the White House, though so far only in a preliminary meeting.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, asked to talk to President Obama’s White House staff this week so that he could help make the case that the Korean War chaplain from Kansas should be awarded the nation’s highest military honor for acts he performed while starving to death in a North Korean prison camp more than 60 years ago.
A White House staffer, as a courtesy to Pompeo, came to the congressman’s office on Wednesday to hear him out, Pompeo said.
“It was a chance for me to tell him Father Kapaun’s story, which I did,” Pompeo said in a telephone interview afterward. “I explained how important this is to the folks in Kansas, and I explained that it’s hard to imagine a human being more qualified for the honor.”
If there is a decision to award the medal to Kapaun, President Obama will be the one to make it. Pompeo said he got no pushback, no opposition at all from the White House staffer, whom he declined to name. But while most Kansans are familiar with the basics of Kapaun’s heroism, the White House is not necessarily familiar with it yet. “So right now, there’s no timetable, no clear timeline to get this done, “ Pompeo said.
Pompeo said he plans to write a letter to the president explaining why Kapaun deserves the honor. He also said he plans to supply the White House staff with copies of Eagle newspaper and video stories about Kapaun, and also links to a video broadcast about Kapaun recently broadcast by Britain’s BBC network.
Pompeo said he also made the case to the staffer that a medal ceremony, if there is one, should happen soon; many of Kapaun’s fellow sufferers from the prisoner of war camps in North Korea are in their mid-80s now, growing more frail.
“I explained that time really matters here,” Pompeo said.
Key military leaders, including a secretary of the Army and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have already recommended Kapaun be awarded the medal.
Kapaundied in a North Korean prison camp in May 1951. Before that, according to fellow soldiers, he saved hundreds of soldiers’ lives, first by dragging battlefield wounded through gunfire to safety, then by rallying soldiers to survive torture and starvation in the prison camps. The Catholic church, meanwhile, has investigated his eligibility for sainthood for decades. Kapaun, after his death, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross – the Army’s second-highest award for valor – for his many heroic acts in battle before his capture. But his fellow POWs have said he deserves the Medal of Honor for repeated acts of gallantry in the prison camps, where he saved hundreds by boiling water, picking lice off sick prisoners, stealing food and giving it away, and inspiring many other starving prisoners to survive.
Kapaun grew up in Pilsen, in Marion County, and served there as a parish priest before joining the Army. He served in World War II and in many battles in Korea before he was captured.