When President Obama Honored Father Kapaun

A moment of grace in a town marked by division and backbiting

The Miracle of Father Kapaun, my second book, was off the presses and in our hands on March 26, only 15 days before President Barack Obama handed the Medal of Honor to U.S. Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun’s family at the White House.

That’s crazy good luck, publishing a story just as the president elevates your story subject as a national hero. But it was no surprise to my co-author, Travis Heying, or to me. 

We started the story by seemingly sheer coincidence, shortly after the Army revived Father Kapaun’s Medal of Honor investigation after 55 years. We overcame problems with almost no effort. We talked to former prisoners of war and researched Father Kapaun off and on for five years, and every time we ran into one of those problems that kills a complex project, the problem would go away in some weird and wonderful way. This was a story that seemed to be kissed by the angels.

In 2009, as just one example, we bought tickets to fly from our homes in Wichita, Kansas, to Cumberland, Maryland, talk to North Korean prisoner of war camp survivor Bob McGreevy, who had seen some of Father’s prison heroics.  We flew even though McGreevy, at the last moment, canceled our interview, saying that talking about the Korean War gave him nightmares.

I didn’t even bother to tell Travis that McGreevy had canceled until shortly before we rolled up outside McGreevy’s house. I knew that our Kapaun Luck, as it might be called, would intervene, as it always did. Sure enough, big, blunt Bob McGreevy stepped out of his house and changed his heart. “Get in here,” he said, uttering a venial-sin swear word. “I’ll talk.”

“I knew you would,” I said.

Good things always happened around Father Kapaun, on battlefields, in the North Korean prison camp, in the worst conditions imaginable. He saved wounded soldiers on battlefields by dragging them to safety with bullets flying at him. In prison, he put on a clinic about how to witness Christianity and secular leadership by example. He hardly ever said much, his friends told us. Instead, he carried wounded soldiers when no one else would, washed the underwear of soldiers too sick to do it for themselves and picked lice off dying prisoners.

Good things have repeatedly happened to people long after Kapaun died in 1951. The Vatican, studying Father for sainthood, is studying three “alleged miracles,” involving mysterious healings of sick or injured young people. I’ve talked to the doctors and the victims; they all say there is no scientific explanation. All three recovered after people around them prayed for the intercession of Father Kapaun.

Good things happened to me and Travis as we wrote this book. McGreevy talked, after all. And four days ago (as I write this) McGreevy, a former Army corporal, went to the White House, got hugged by beautiful women and was greeted as a war hero by Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno. The most beautiful woman who hugged him, McGreevy said: Michelle Obama. “She looks like a…movie star,” he marveled.

The gathering in Washington was another example of how contact with the story of Father Kapaun produces grace and wonders.

The old warriors showed up in a city where politicians now backbite and denounce each other with venom not seen since the Civil War. They showed up at a White House run by a man most of Father Kapaun friends intensely disliked, a liberal Democrat with beliefs and social policies they think hurt the country.

“He’s a socialist,” McGreevy fumed, before the ceremony. “We don’t like socialists.”

“Any affection any of us might have had for any form of socialism was ground out of us in that prison camp by people who starved us, murdered our friends, and tried to tell us of the glories of socialism,” explained POW Bob Wood.

But this was Father Kapaun they had come to honor. And he would have stood for none of this. As we show in the book, he never lashed out at anyone (except murderous guards) and never lectured anyone about religion (or politics).  

But by the time he was murdered by the Communist guards in May 1951, he had Protestants, Jews, and atheists saying the Rosary together, defying camp guards. When he was carried to meet his death, the Muslim Turk POWs stood at attention to honor him. And just before he was isolated to die in what the POWs called the Death House, Wood saw him reach up a weak hand and bless the guards who were murdering him. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he said.

At the White House on April 11, the man most of the POWs detested gave a Father Kapaun speech that stunned the old guys with its eloquence and gratitude. Wood, a firm but thoughtful Obama critic, told anyone who would listen afterward that Obama had done “a marvelous job.” And his comrades all said that contrary to established conservative dogma, the president did not use a teleprompter.

This doesn’t mean they changed core beliefs, or succumbed to the temptations of praise. If given a chance, most of them would vote Obama out of office if they could.

But for two days, they hugged each other in a town where Republicans can no longer compromise with Democrats, and where no one can change their own hearts. And in that town, the old heroes changed their hearts by giving respect to a man they said had earned it for that day.

To this, Father Kapaun would not have said much.

He never said much, preferring, like the Jesus of the Gospels, to lead more by example than by word.

But he would have applauded their fairness.

He always looked for grace even in the most graceless places on Earth.

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About Roy Wenzl 0 Articles
Roy Wenzl is the co-author of The Miracle of Father Kapaun and an award-winning reporter for the Wichita Eagle. He is also the co-producer of the documentary film, The Miracle of Father Kapaun, distributed through Ignatius Press.