Ft. Riley chaplain hopes to say farewell to Kapaun home
God willing and circumstances allowing, Chaplain Captain Matthew Whitehead will make the trip from Ft. Riley to Pilsen on Wednesday for the 13th annual Veterans Day military pilgrimage.
Whitehead, one of several base chaplains, is coming because of the inspiration he infuses into his ministry with military families from the life and example of fellow chaplain and Korean War veteran Father Emil Kapaun.
And he’s coming to say goodbye.
“From the moment I got my orders to Ft. Riley I was excited because I was going to be close to Father Kapaun’s home,” Whitehead said. “Now I have orders that will take me away from here, so the event next Wednesday is a farewell. It will be special for me. I’ve come to love it out here.”
Whitehead became familiar with Kapaun’s story of service and sacrifice as a prisoner of war when the candidate for sainthood was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013.
“He was an instant inspiration,” he said.
Pilsen was one of the first places North Carolina native Whitehead visited after arriving at Ft. Riley. He couldn’t do the three-day, 60-mile Kapaun pilgrimage in 2014, but in June he led a contingent of 15 soldiers to join in the trek with nearly 200 others.
“It was an absolute spiritual high to be with that many people celebrating Father Kapaun’s ministry,” Whitehead said.
Soldiers from Ft. Riley and Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, emulated Father Kapaun’s march to prison camp by taking turns carrying a weighted litter on their shoulders.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m equating what we experienced with what he did,” Whitehead said, “but to be hungry as you walk, to sweat as you walk; this was exercise for us, but for Father Kapaun it was life or death. Through the pilgrimage, we shared in the suffering in a small way.”
While Kapaun ministered to fellow soldiers, Whitehead ministers to soldiers and their families. For both, shared suffering is a principle of practice.
“The priestly ministry is to share in the suffering of soldiers and relieve them of that suffering,” Whitehead said. “That’s what all of us here at Ft. Riley do. We’re here for the soldiers and their families. Participating in a spiritual exercise for Father Kapaun is one way to highlight how we share in the suffering of people and present them to God as holy.”
Mass will be celebrated 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. John Nepomucene Church. At the conclusion of Mass, well-known speaker Joe Farris will give a presentation on Father Kapaun.
Rev. John Hotze, Episcopal delegate for canonization of Father Kapaun and one of the Mass celebrants, said Farris has an inspirational story to share as well.
“He’ll tell about what Father Kapaun means in his life,” Hotze said. “He gave up his job, he was in finance, he and his family sold everything they had in order to go out and do parish missions.”
A wreath-laying ceremony at the Kapaun statue will be followed by a luncheon in the church hall.