Medal of Honor Ceremony for Father Emile Kapaun

By:  Charles Hagel
Date: April 12, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

Thank you. Good afternoon.

I have a prepared speech, but in the interest of each of you, I shall not deliver it.

I want to instead just express a couple of thoughts, because I think before I welcome all of you on behalf of the Department of Defense, and particularly the Kapaun family, Secretary McHugh and General Odierno in the rather moving, but human terms, have expressed, I think, so much of what Chaplain Kapaun was about, his life and who he really was, aside from his valiant efforts on behalf of others.

In a day when heroes, real heroes, are hard to find, at a time when America is searching for a center of gravity to believe in its leaders, believe, once again, in its institutions, it's particularly important that we grab a hold of people like Father Kapaun, and not just acknowledge those acts of heroism and those great, astounding acts of valiantry and what he did as a clergyman and a man of the cloth, but the composite, who he was, what he was about. It was not just mortal courage. It was really more about moral conviction. It was about integrity.

Character and courage are the two indispensable elements of a person's life. I think, all of us attempt to live up to that. We all fail, but we get back up and continue to try to achieve those responsible human characteristics that society expects from each of us, and especially the next generation.

And the acts that were recited today, performed by Father Kapaun are, yes, tremendous acts by any measurement and by any metric applied. But it is the whole of the man: where he came from, how he was shaped, how he was raised, what he believed in. He just didn't appear in World War II. He didn't just appear in the Korean War. Something shaped him. How did that happen? I suspect he was born with many of those traits, but those traits don't necessarily materialize or develop into something as an end-product.

The stories that Secretary McHugh and General Odierno shared with us are part of that journey that was, unfortunately, cut short. But it tells us a lot about our country. It tells us a lot about who we are. And that's what I've always thought is so critical to remember in great, great men like Father Kapaun.

As a very young kid growing up in a little town in western Nebraska at the time of the Korean War, I recall vividly -- five years old -- how my mother and my grandmother and grandfather drove my father to the Greyhound bus depot in Ainsworth, Nebraska and put my father on the bus to Omaha, Nebraska, because my father was a World War II veteran, like many in this audience, and was being called up for active duty in Korea, not dissimilar to Father Kapaun's story. And I remember that vividly, vividly, even though I was five years old.

Now, my father didn't have to go to Korea, but went back into training, as many did, to prepare our forces for another war. And that whole time in my life that I recall, the same thing that was happening in Pilsen, Kansas, and happening all over America, shaped all of us. And especially, our Korean War veterans, who I particularly salute today, and particularly noted and we salute again the POWs, former POWs who are here.

That war was, and still is, often referred to in history as a "forgotten war." What was it about? It was, kind of, this blip. What was it really? Well, those who served, those who fought and died, and those who endured brutal circumstances in the POW camp can tell you what it was about. The human dynamic of that, as, I think, is so well understood, in particular, at the Korean War memorial. And I suspect almost everyone in this room has visited that at least once.

Because it reflects on a time, a defining time in our history, in the world. It reflects, once again, on a defining time in our society. We shaped a generation and another generation of Americans as a result of that war and those sacrifices and leadership that were displayed.

And I know of no finer example to point to for us to come together to recognize, to honor, to remember, and to build our lives around than the recognition that we give to Father Kapaun today here at the Department of Defense by formally installing him into the Hall of Heroes, as he was acknowledged and represented a couple of days ago in the Oval Office in the White House by President Obama.

And to the Kapaun family, thank you for being here. I know how proud you are and how justifiably proud you are for what Father Kapaun represents and will continue to represent.

So to each of you who serve our country, whether it was in the Korean War or whatever capacity, those who continue to serve this country, many seated here today, our country thanks you. We appreciate you, and we're honored by you. And this honor is reflected on all of you by the recognition of Father Kapaun today.

Thank you very much.

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