President Biden on Friday awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, to Ralph Puckett Jr., a 94-year-old Korean War veteran and retired Army colonel who was wounded in a battle against Chinese soldiers in Korea more than 70 years ago.
"Today we are hosting a true American hero and awarding an honor that is long overdue," Biden said during an East Room ceremony that was also attended by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
It was the first Medal of Honor awarded by Biden as president.
Biden said that when Puckett was told of the White House's plans for the award ceremony, he asked, "Why all the fuss? Why can't they just mail it to me?"
The president then recounted the story of Puckett's "extraordinary heroism" during the Korean War.
In November 1950, Puckett, then a first lieutenant in the Eighth U.S. Army Ranger Company, led more than 50 fellow Rangers on a mission to capture and defend a hill from a Chinese assault. He intentionally ran across an exposed area multiple times to draw enemy fire away from his soldiers.
During the siege, he was wounded by a hand grenade and two rounds of mortar fire but refused evacuation, moving from foxhole to foxhole, directing artillery support and inspiring his fellow soldiers to fight.
"Knowing his men were in a precarious situation, First Lieutenant Puckett commanded the Rangers to leave him behind and evacuate the area," the White House said in a statement announcing the award.
Two of his Rangers disregarded the order and pulled Puckett off the hill to safety.
"First Lieutenant Puckett’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service," the White House added.
Puckett earned two Distinguished Service Crosses for his actions on what was then known as Hill 205. He had a 22-year career in the Army, later serving in the Vietnam War, during which he also saw combat, before retiring from active duty in 1971. He earned five Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in combat.
According to a bio provided by the White House, Puckett is still active in community and military affairs in Columbus, Ga., where he lives with his wife of 68 years, Jean. They have three children, one of whom is deceased, and six grandchildren.
After Biden placed the medal around Puckett's neck, the president invited family members who were in attendance to join them onstage for photos.
Biden and Moon knelt down to pose with Puckett, who stood for parts of the ceremony but was helped onstage by younger service members.
Puckett was also greeted by Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
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