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One of the Illinois Army National Guard’s newest Chaplains graduated from Basic Officers Leaders Course Dec. 19 at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and earned the Chaplain Corps’ Chaplain Emil Kapaun Award for Distinguished Leadership.
Chaplain (1st Lt.) Michael A. Rivera, Jr., of Bloomington, Illinois, enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard in 1998 and was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the Illinois Army National Guard Chaplain Corps in July. Rivera serves as the Chaplain of the 44th Chemical Battalion.
The Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun award for Distinguished Leadership is presented to the student chosen by his or her peers as displaying the attributes and competencies of an Army leader, and the Chaplain Corps’ sacred values, according to Melvin Slater, U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School.
The award is named in honor of Chaplain Emil Kapaun who, during the Korean War, “repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Americans. His extraordinary courage, faith and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, resist enemy indoctrination, and retain their faith in god and country,” Slater said.
“I am humbled and honored to be the recipient of the Chaplain Kapaun Award for Excellence in Leadership during my chaplain training,” Rivera said. “The reality of having my peers and the instructors identify and choose me above others for such an honorable recognition speaks to the favor of God on my life. Now comes the harder work of living up to such a prestigious award.”
“Receiving this award has confirmed and affirmed ‘the call’ that God has on my life both in civilian and military ministry. I can clearly remember the overwhelming emotion that I experienced during my evening of reflection the day the awards were announced,” Rivera said. “I owe a great deal of gratitude to my battle buddies, Chaplain Bradley Barrick, Chaplain Clint Bass and Chaplain Kenneth Brooks for being the greatest accountability partners anyone could ask for. They motivated, inspired and encouraged me to be at my best daily.”
Kapaun was serving with 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment during the Battle of Unsan, Nov. 1-2, 1950. According to published accounts, as Chinese Communist forces encircled the battalion, Kapaun repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover wounded men, dragging them to safety. Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded. He was taken as a prisoner of war by Chinese forces on Nov. 2, 1950.
As a Prisoner of War, Kapaun risked his life by sneaking around the camp after dark, foraging for food, caring for the sick, and encouraging his fellow Soldiers to sustain their faith and their humanity. Kapaun died in captivity on May 23, 1951.
For his actions, Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013 by then-President Barack Obama.