Biden awards first Medal of Honor of presidency to Korean War veteran
President Biden awarded the first Medal of Honor of his term to a 94-year-old Korean War veteran on Friday in a ceremony timed with his first in-person meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Biden awarded the U.S. military’s highest honor to Ralph Puckett Jr., a retired Army colonel who led the capture and defense of Hill 205 under heavy attack from the Chinese in November 1950 during the Korean War.
“Today we are hosting a true American hero and awarding an honor that is long overdue, more than 70 years overdue,” Biden told the room of administration officials, lawmakers, Korean officials and members of Puckett’s family.
Biden described in detail how Puckett commanded the 8th U.S. Army Ranger Company during the attack on 205. He said Puckett deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire in order to help the Rangers locate enemy positions and described near deadly wounds as the Rangers tried to defend the hill.
Biden noted that Puckett’s service extended beyond the Korean War and that he later earned honors for service in Vietnam and was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame.
“Even now — even now — you can find him out at Fort Benning, cheering on the Rangers and letting them know he is there with them,” Biden said. “Over his career he mentored countless young people. He’s always believed that all that mattered to be a Ranger was if you had the guts and the brains. That’s the standard he applied when he picked his first Ranger unit in Korea.”
Puckett stood without the support of his walker as Biden placed the Medal of Honor around his neck. He and his family posed for photographs with Biden and first lady Jill Biden following the ceremony.
It was apparently the first Medal of Honor ceremony to be attended by a foreign leader. Biden said that the ceremony showed the strong alliance between the U.S. and South Korea.
“While the enduring partnership between our two nations began in war, it has flourished through peace. It’s testament, I think, of the extraordinary strength of our alliance,” Biden said.
Moon briefly delivered his own remarks in Korean, which were translated into English, recognizing the valor of Puckett and other Korean War veterans.
“Colonel Puckett is a true hero of the Korean War,” Moon said. “Without the sacrifice of veterans including Colonel Puckett and the 8th Army Ranger company, freedom and democracy that we enjoy today couldn’t have blossomed in Korea.”
Three members of Congress were on hand for the ceremony, including Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard. Ernst told reporters ahead of the event that she has known Puckett since the 1990s, calling him an “incredible mentor.”
The ceremony, which was attended by more than two dozen people who were not wearing masks, showed that the White House is shedding coronavirus restrictions after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that vaccinated Americans can go without masks in most situations indoors.
“We are, as many organizations and companies are, working to implement these guidelines here at the White House,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters later Friday. “What you have seen over the last couple of days is efforts to do exactly that.”