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WASHINGTON — President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to relatives of the Rev. Emil Kapaun on Thursday, calling the Catholic priest from Pilsen, Kan., “An American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all … a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so they might live.”

Kapaun was awarded the U.S. military’s top honor nearly 62 years after his death in captivity.

More than 60 people — among them nine former POWs, Kansas bishops and high-ranking officials in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, relatives of Kapaun and members of the state’s congressional delegation — attended the White House ceremony. Obama gave the medal to Ray Kapaun, one of Emil Kapaun’s nephews.

Several people in the audience wept as Obama spoke about Kapaun, among them departing Wichita Bishop Michael Jackels and Paula Kear, the mother of Chase Kear. Chase’s unexpected recovery from a pole-vaulting accident is being reviewed by the Vatican as a possible miracle attributed to Kapaun.

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“Beautiful … it couldn’t have been any better,” said Bob McGreevy, one of the nine POWs in attendance, who were given a standing ovation during the presentation.

Kapaun — who died at 35 in May 1951 in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp — was honored for his actions Nov. 1 and 2, 1950, at the battle of Unsan, where his 8th Cavalry regiment was overrun by Chinese forces. He helped aid those wounded in battle with no regard for his own safety. Witnesses said Kapaun ran 200 to 300 yards outside a shrinking defensive perimeter to rescue wounded U.S. soldiers despite enemy fire.

He also stayed behind and let himself be captured by Chinese forces so he could care for wounded U.S. soldiers. He was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest military honor.

Thursday’s ceremony was the capstone of a six-decade effort that had been confounded by Kapaun’s unusual brand of heroism. His comrades advocating for the honor were successful only after they shifted strategy.

The Medal of Honor is reserved for bravery in combat, but for the men who served with him, the chaplain’s true heroism occurred in a prison camp, far from a battlefield, in winter 1950-51.

“He’s personally responsible for saving hundreds of lives, and probably contributed to saving thousands of lives that winter,” said Mike Dowe, 85, a physicist from Texas who was a prisoner with Kapaun. But that was not enough to qualify for the Medal of Honor.

So Dowe and others decided to tout Kapaun’s conduct during the battle with Chinese forces in Unsan, and it is Kapaun’s acts during that combat that appear on his official Medal of Honor citation.

Some of those present for the ceremony served with Kapaun in combat or suffered with him in the prison camp, where the only things keeping them alive were handfuls of birdseed or stolen food, and the spiritual and emotional nourishment offered by the priest from Kansas who openly defied their Communist captors.

“That faith — that they might be delivered from evil — was perhaps his greatest gift to those men,” Obama said Thursday.

The Secretary of the Army and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended Kapaun for the Medal of Honor in 2009. But special legislation had to pass Congress because of statute-of-limitation issues and the White House had to agree with the recommendation before the medal could be awarded.

Kapaun was born in 1916 on a farm near the town of Pilsen, in Marion County, and was ordained a priest in Wichita in 1940. He served his church in Pilsen until 1944, when he joined the Army as chaplain; he served in India and Burma, then returned to Kansas and parish churches. In 1948, he rejoined the Army as a chaplain and was stationed in 1950 in Japan with the 8th Cavalry regiment. That unit went to Korea weeks after the North invaded the South on June 25.

After his capture at Unsan, Kapaun kept rescuing soldiers on the march to prison, persuading able-bodied soldiers to help carry wounded comrades. In prison, he defied brainwashing attempts by the camp guards, picked lice off the sick, washed the clothes of wounded soldiers and with others stole bags of food while other POWs deliberately started fights to distract guards.

Kapaun has been declared a Servant of God by the Roman Catholic Church, and the Vatican is investigating his case for sainthood. The Rev. John Hotze is investigating Kapaun’s canonization case. Hotze has interviewed 55 people and reviewed many documents, compiling 8,000 pages of information he sent to the Vatican. He is investigating two miracles people say occurred after they prayed to Kapaun. To qualify for sainthood, Hotze said, a candidate needs to have lived a life of heroic virtue and sanctity.

“My personal impression of him is, there’s no way he cannot be a saint, in what he has done,” Hotze said.

To illustrate, Hotze pointed to Kapaun’s outlook as a prisoner of war: “You and me, our first thought would be: How am I going to survive? He would look at every day as: What am I going to do to help someone else survive?”

Material from Tribune Washington Bureau is included in this report.

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