SOUTHWEST ASIA – A Kansas Air National Guard officer deployed here said her service is a way to honor the memory of a relative who earned the Medal of Honor during the Korean War.
Air Force 1st Lt. Kristina Roberts, an air weapons officer deployed to the 727th Expeditionary Air Control Squadron, volunteered for this deployment, and described how the life of her great uncle, Army Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun, has shaped her own.
“He was a man who never gave up, and through it all, always maintained his integrity, faith, courage and his sense of humor,” she said. “Helping others is not just a calling for me, but is a way to continue his legacy.”
Facing a wave of communist forces in November 1950, and knowing that staying behind to tend to wounded soldiers would lead to his capture, Kapaun disregarded an evacuation order and willingly risked his life to help those in need. According to numerous battlefield accounts, he convinced a wounded Chinese officer to order a cease-fire and saved his men from certain death.
Kapaun and wounded members of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, were captured and led on a death march to a prisoner-of-war camp. Those who were too badly wounded to march were immediately executed.
When he saw an enemy soldier preparing to execute Army Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Miller, Kapaun pushed the soldier aside, saved Miller’s life and helped to carry him the rest of the way. During six months as a POW, the chaplain routinely risked his life to sneak food and hot water to his fellow POWs and continued to serve the men he considered his flock.
Ignoring hunger and his own comfort, Kapaun willingly gave his rations and extra clothing to other soldiers, and provided continuous spiritual care and guidance, even when threatened by his captors.
Kapaun died in captivity on May 23, 1951, after contracting numerous debilitating illnesses.
President Barack Obama presented a posthumous Medal of Honor to the chaplain’s family at an April 11, 2013, White House ceremony that Roberts attended.
Her grandfather told numerous stories when she was growing up, Roberts said, and the family attended annual events honoring Kapaun in his hometown of Pilsen, Kan.
“There hasn't been a day that I have not thought of my great uncle, especially when I was going through all my military training,” said the lieutenant, who is deployed from the 134th Air Control Squadron in Wichita, Kan.
Roberts said the men Kapaun cared for during their imprisonment worked for decades to get recognition for him.
An enlisted surveillance technician for nine years, Roberts received her commission in December 2010 and went through the nine-month air battle manager course and an additional two months of follow-on training. Throughout her 13-year Air Force career, she has held numerous civilian positions that have given her the opportunity to serve others.
“In 2006, I worked at a restaurant as a server and working my way up to a manager in less than a year,” she said. “In 2008, I received my bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism, and in less than a year I worked my way up to marketing director for a local television station in Wichita.”
Roberts obtained her master’s degree in exercise science in 2011, and after completing military training, began working as a personal trainer at a YMCA in Wichita.
“I chose to work at the ‘Y’ because I really believe in its mission of helping the community and making a difference,” she said. “Just like my great uncle, I've always had a calling to help those around me: from adults faced with certain challenges to children who need someone to look out for them.”