President Joe Biden awarded his first Medal of Honor on Friday to a 94-year-old retired Army colonel for bravery under enemy fire more than a half-century ago in the Korean War.
It took a policy change for retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. to receive the military’s highest honor. The 2020 defense policy bill removed a requirement that such awards be given within five years of a valorous act.
“Today we are hosting a true American hero and awarding an honor that is long overdue — more than 70 years overdue,” Biden said during the East Room ceremony. “Though I understand that your first response to us hosting this event was to ask why all the fuss.”
Biden said Puckett had suggested they just mail him the award.
“Rather than mail it to you, I would’ve walked it to you,” Biden said, adding that the retired Ranger indeed deserved “a little bit of fuss.”
Over two days in November 1950, Puckett as first lieutenant helped the 8th U.S. Army Ranger Company to secure a strategically important hill near Unsan. They faced mortar, machine gun and small arms fire.
Puckett sprinted across the open area to draw fire so that Rangers could find and destroy enemy positions. Two mortar rounds later landed in his foxhole during the fighting and seriously wounded him. He ordered his men to leave him behind and depart the hill, but they refused.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in also attended the White House ceremony ahead of his summit with Biden, making him the first foreign leader to do so.
“Without the sacrifice of veterans, including Colonel Puckett and the Eighth Army Ranger Company, the freedom and democracy we enjoy today couldn’t have blossomed in Korea,” Moon said.
Puckett lives in Columbus, Georgia, with Jean, his wife of 68 years.