Courage is often talked about but seldom witnessed. On Memorial Day each year, America comes together to remember those courageous souls who inspire us all – those who answered the call to serve our country and laid down their lives for our freedom.
One such soldier, Father Emil Kapaun, was born in Pilsen, Kansas, in 1916 and served our country on the battlefields of the Korean War as a chaplain for the 8th Calvary Regiment of the First Army Division. Father Kapaun’s courageous actions in Korea saved countless lives as he risked his own to drag the wounded to safety while dodging explosions and enemy gunfire. When he was taken prisoner in 1950, he continued to live out the Army Chaplain motto – “for God and Country.”
In the bitter cold of winter, Father Kapaun carried injured comrades on his back as Chinese captors led them on forced marches through the snow and ice, gave away his meager food rations, and cared for the sick who were suffering alongside him in the prison camp. He also provided spiritual aid and comfort; on Easter, he defied his communist captors by conducting Mass with a makeshift crucifix. When all else looked hopeless, Father Kapaun rallied his comrades to persevere – until his own death as a prisoner in 1951.
Since 2009, my colleagues in the United States Congress and I worked together to make certain his countless acts of heroism would be recognized. In 2011, Sen. Roberts and I introduced legislation to award Father Kapaun the Congressional Medal of Honor. On April 11, 2013 – more than 60 years after laying down his life for the sake of others – Father Kapaun finally received our nation’s highest award of valor. I was honored to attend the Congressional Medal of Honor Ceremony at the White House, where his nephew, Ray Kapaun, accepted the Medal on his uncle’s behalf.
Father Kapaun has inspired many with his unshakable faith and relentless courage. His story of self-sacrifice demonstrates that the strength of our nation lies within its people. Only when each citizen feels the duty to do his or her part will our nation be strengthened. This won’t come as a result of our individual successes, but in what we accomplish together.
Often in Washington, it can be easy to forget what’s important in the midst of all the partisan politics, the next election or the latest poll. When I need a reminder, I take a walk – from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Between these two points, I pass the WWII Memorial, Vietnam Wall, and Korean War Memorial.
These memorials to our service members help put everything in perspective. Our freedoms are so important that our nation’s sons and daughters put their lives at risk to defend and protect them. Like Father Kapaun, these men and women didn’t sacrifice for Republicans or Democrats; they gave their lives for the greater good of our country and to make certain their children and grandchildren would also experience freedom and liberty.
One of the memorials that has special meaning for me is the World War II Memorial. In 2004, I visited this memorial a few days before the official dedication ceremony. As I walked among the many pillars, I came across the pillar representing the many Kansans who served, and I thought of my dad. He served in northern Africa and up the boot heel of Italy during the Second World War.
As I turned to leave, I called my Dad and said: “I’m at the World War II Memorial and I thought of you. I respect you, I thank you for your service, and I love you.” It was something that sons don’t often say to their fathers, but there is something about memorials that makes us stop and reflect on all those who sacrificed so much to make certain we can continue to live in the strongest, freest and greatest nation in the world.
On Memorial Day, we honor the courageous souls who laid down their lives for our country and we thank God for giving us these heroes. Let us commit our lives to preserving this nation for the sake of the next generation – so they too can pursue the American dream with freedom and liberty.