The family of Father Emil Kapaun had waited for 60 years to hear that he had won the Medal of Honor.
But in December 2012, when the confirmation call from Washington, D.C., finally came, 83-year-old Helen Kapaun was putting up Christmas decorations with daughter, Angie, in Helen’s home.
Helen Kapaun thought for a few moments that the caller might be a prankster. She thought about hanging up.
“Mrs. Kapaun?” the caller said. “This is the president, Barack Obama.”
“Hello,” she said.
He kept talking.
The man on the phone sounded confident, polite, respectful. There was a note of deep kindness in the voice that impressed her. And he sounded like the man she had seen many times on television.
But Helen Kapaun is a widow who lives alone. Her husband of more than 60 years, Eugene Kapaun, died in 2010. Eugene Kapaun was Emil’s younger brother.
She never wants to be gullible, Helen Kapaun said later. She has suffered in life; one of her daughters, Rosann, was murdered six years ago.
So she still doubted. But kept listening.
The caller said her brother-in-law, a U.S. Army chaplain from Pilsen, Kan., was a hero in the Korean War. The caller said he planned to give the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, to her personally at the White House, in a few weeks’ time.
He asked her to come to the White House, that he would be glad to see her.
Helen Kapaun was convinced. She leaned over, as the man spoke, and whispered to her daughter, Angie:
She decided not to hang up.
Saying no to Obama
In an interview from her home last week, Helen Kapaun said the president began their conversation by saying that “after all these years” he would award the medal.
She recognized this as his reference to how Father Emil Kapaun’s fellow soldiers had claimed, ever since they walked away from captivity in North Korea in 1953, that Kapaun deserved the medal. Kapaun had saved hundreds of soldiers’ lives, first on the battlefield and then in grim confrontations with Communist prison guards, abuse, disease, starvation and sub-zero winter temperatures in the prisoner-of-war camps.
Kapaun will be honored specifically for his actions Nov. 1 and 2, 1950, in the battle of Unsan, where he helped aid those wounded in battle with no regard for his own safety. Kapaun also stayed behind and let himself be captured by Chinese forces in order to care for wounded American soldiers. He was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, the Army’s second-highest military honor. That will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Obama told Helen Kapaun that he would preside over ceremony, which will take place at the White House on Thursday. There will be a second ceremony, run by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, at the Pentagon on Friday.
“I hope you will come,” she recalled the president saying.
That stopped her again.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, no.’
“I told him I didn’t know about getting around in the White House,” she said. “I told him I have to use a walker.
“You can bring your walker,” she said the president replied. “And we have wheelchairs here – all the wheelchairs anyone might need. I hope you can come.”
And so she said yes.
“It’s really hard to say no to the president,” she said later.
Her son, Ray Kapaun, chuckled when he eventually heard a recounting of this pleasant conversation between his mother and President Obama.
Another person amused by this was Helen Kapaun’s friend, the Rev. John Hotze, the Catholic priest who for nearly 15 years has led the Vatican’s investigation of Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood.
“At first, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ ” Hotze said.
He said he has been around Helen Kapaun enough to know that she is meek, shy, “a very sweet lady” – and an ardent Republican. And that though shy, she has a pronounced view on the economic and social policies of Obama.
Hotze said his first thought, when he heard they had spoken was that “perhaps Helen might have shared some of her opinions with him.”
Later, when someone teased Helen Kapaun by asking whether she had voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012, her voice rose immediately.
“Are you kidding?” she said. Then she laughed.
“He was really very nice to me.”
He asked two things of her.
“Please come to the White House,” he said.
She said yes, but later broke this promise. The thought of travel, of possible news media interviews, of cameras taking her photo – it upset her.
She plans to stay in Wichita and watch Ray and her other children accept the medal on television or online.
But she kept one other promise made to him, her family said.
Obama, not wanting her bothered and wanting time for his staff to get the medal ceremony set up, asked Helen Kapaun not to tell anyone that he had called. Please keep this between us, he said.
“I promised,” she said.
That was in December.
For weeks afterward, Ray Kapaun said, when he and her other children asked whether the president had called, she refused to say a word.
Ray Kapaun laughed as he described later how he and his siblings quizzed her. His Mom stonewalled her own children until news about the medal leaked from unofficial sources in late February.
“The president of the United States asked me not to tell anyone,” she said last week.
“So I did not tell anyone.”