War and Soldiers Have Changed Over a Century. Chaplains Remain a Powerful Force.

The Rev. Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass in Korea in October 1950. The legendary military chaplain is credited with saving hundreds of soldiers during the Korean War. (Photo by U.S. Army Col. Raymond A. Skeehan/courtesy of the Father Kapaun Guild)

(RNS) — Last month, Maj. Gen. Thomas Solhjem, U.S. Army chief of chaplains, introduced the Spiritual Readiness Initiative, a three-day program — or retreat — to connect spirituality across many faiths, and no faith. 

"Regardless of whether they have a religious belief or not, as leaders we have responsibilities to care for them even if we're religious or not because that's your Soldier," Solhjem said. "Part of knowing them is knowing how they identify, how they see themselves and to respect that."

At its heart, the initiative is an acknowledgment that a powerful Army is also a spiritual one. The same message is found in the mission statement of the Army Chaplain Corps: "To build Army spiritual readiness to deploy, fight, and win our Nation's wars, by providing reliable and relevant world-class religious support."

In writing the life story of Emil Kapaun in my book " The Saint Makers: Inside the Catholic Church and How a War Hero Inspired a Journey of Faith," I discovered a man very much in tune with that mission. Kapaun was a war hero — and to many eyes, a saint: His cause for canonization in the Catholic Church is before the Vatican now. He is certainly among the most famous soldiers who served in the Korean War.

First and foremost, however, Kapaun was a military chaplain, a calling that he first heeded ministering to young farm boys not unlike himself at an Army base near his home in Kansas.
Seventy years after his death in a prisoner of war camp in North Korea, his remains were returned home in September 2021 and are now interred at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita, Kansas.

Much has been written about Kapaun's battlefield derring-do over the decades — how he dodged bullets and artillery mortars to drag the wounded to safety. How he ducked into foxholes for a quick prayer with his men, no matter if they were Jewish, Muslim or nonbelievers.

How his courage and kindness, defiance and love, kept hundreds (if not thousands) of his fellow prisoners alive at Camp No. 5, one of the most brutal prisons in the history of modern war. Kapaun died there so they could eventually walk out.

It earned him the devotion of his fellow soldiers, who pushed for decades for him to be recognized with the Medal of Honor. It was finally awarded to him, along with a moving eulogy, by President Barack Obama in 2013.

Of the more than 3,518 Medal of Honor recipients, Kapaun is one of nine chaplains who, from the Civil War through the Vietnam War, have been recognized with America's greatest honor.
Kapaun was fighting for his men's souls on and off the battlefield.

At Camp No. 5, he saw the lost looks and terrible darkness in the faces of his fellow GIs. He reassured them that together they were going to make their way through their tribulation.

When they were hungry, weak and ill, he conjured comfort from thin air, offering imaginary coffee to drink and ribeye steaks to taste. He scavenged real food for them as well and engineered tools out of scrap. He shook them awake from their selfish ways when they wanted to hoard food or be cruel to one another.

He employed prayer, kindness and love to make the hellhole that was Camp No. 5 survivable for his men. His example showed them strength that they could receive by turning to God.

"At the cessation of the Korean War when the liberating forces freed the prisoners of this camp, they noticed something different in their attitude, distinguishing them from other liberated POWs," wrote Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas earlier this month in the diocesan newspaper, The Leaven.

"The POWs from Father Kapaun's camp had a hope, a camaraderie and concern for each other."
Wars are fought differently today — from the air or sea, with far fewer boots on the ground. For the moment, conflicts are few. Those who serve, demographics will tell you, are less adherent to particular religions.

Still, soldiers and their families need ministering to for anything from combat injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder to the everyday stress of being a human as well as a soldier or military family member. Military chaplains are a powerful force of their own.

Col. Stanton Trotter, the command chaplain for the 21st Theater Sustainment Command, added: "Even the most staunch atheist can believe that we are still connected and we have a moral obligation to take care of our neighbors. Spirituality is not just organized religion."

Kapaun recognized the interconnectedness of his soldiers and tended to it regardless of their faiths. He did it well enough that when the prisoners of Camp No. 5 were released the Muslims and Methodists, Baptists and atheists followed behind a crucifix bearing Kapaun's likeness made by a Jewish fighter pilot.

Of all the heroics and creativity attributed to Kapaun, he understood connections are often made in the small gesture and extra effort.

Before he was captured, a fellow officer found the priest sitting on an ammunition box and hunched over a desk made from an ammo crate. He had a pen, paper and a stack of cards — more than 500 of them, each with a name of a man killed in combat. 

Kapaun was writing personal notes to the soldiers' loved ones, reassuring them their sons and husbands had died under the loving gaze of Christ. When the officer offered to help, Kapaun waved him off.

"Thank you," he said, "but this is a chaplain's job."

(Joe Drape is a sports writer for The New York Times. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.