The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military honor, and winning it puts the recipient in elite company.
Only two Medal of Honor winners, both Vietnam veterans, live in Kansas. They are among 80 people living who have earned the right to wear it, said Carol Cepregi, deputy director of operations for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, based in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Recent news that Emil Kapaun will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama in April means one more Kansan can be added to the distinguished list.
“I cannot argue that he meets all the criteria,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Hagemeister of Leavenworth, who earned his Medal of Honor in 1967. “The recipients don’t have a vote; we just honor the ones that come up.”
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In the 150 years since the medal was first awarded, it has been presented 3,460 times to a member of the military who has distinguished himself with valor during combat against an enemy. In many cases, the award is presented posthumously to a member of the medal winner’s family.
Kapaun will join about two dozen other men with Kansas ties who have won the Medal of Honor. A Pentagon letter said Kapaun’s family will receive his medal during a White House ceremony April 11.
Born in Pilsen, a small Czech community in Marion County, Kapaun was a chaplain during both World War II and the Korean War. His fellow soldiers said that, in Korea, Kapaun repeatedly ran through enemy fire, dragging wounded soldiers to safety during the first months of the war.
They said his most courageous acts followed in a prisoner of war camp, where Kapaun died in May 1951. They said he saved hundreds of soldiers’ lives by using faith to rally them against hopeless odds and by sharing food he stole from the guards, giving it to starving prisoners.
Hagemeister, 66, earned his Medal of Honor in the Binh Dinh Province, Republic of Vietnam, on March 20, 1967. He was serving as a medical corpsman when his platoon was attacked. Hagemeister ran through enemy fire to rescue wounded comrades and to help get support from a nearby platoon. In the process, he killed a sniper and captured an enemy machine gun.
Retired Col. Roger Hugh Donlon, who also lives in Leavenworth, was unable to be reached for comment. He earned his medal on July 6, 1964, the first medal recipient of the Vietnam War, according to the Home of Heroes website.
Donlon, 79, was the commanding officer at Camp Nam Dong when the camp was attacked by a Viet Cong battalion shortly before dawn. In the five-hour attack, Donlon recovered ammunition and weapons, rescued the wounded and rallied his men to overcome the enemy troops. In the process, he suffered shrapnel wounds to his stomach, leg, shoulder and face.
According to the Home of Heroes website, eight Medals of Honor were earned during the Indian Wars on Kansas soil, and four during battles fought in Kansas during the Civil War.