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Retired Army officer receives Medal of Honor, becomes one of most decorated soldiers in U.S. history

President Biden presents the Medal of Honor to retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett on Friday in the East Room of the White House. (Alex Brandon/AP)

A retired Army officer became one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. military history on Friday, receiving the Medal of Honor from President Biden at the White House more than 70 years after leading soldiers through a fierce attack during the Korean War.

Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., 94, stood in a dress uniform as Biden draped the medal around his neck. He had entered the ceremony in a wheelchair, and a walker was nearby, but set both aside to receive the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.

President Biden, Vice President Harris and South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett Jr.'s Medal of Honor ceremony on May 21. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden, awarding his first Medal of Honor as president, recounted how Puckett braved enemy fire repeatedly as his soldiers took control of Hill 205, frozen high ground about 60 miles from the Chinese border.

As Chinese soldiers launched swarming attacks afterward for hours in bitterly cold temperatures, then-1st Lt. Puckett checked on his men and redistributed ammunition, even after he was wounded.

“Korea is sometimes called the ‘Forgotten War,’ but those men who were there under Lieutenant Puckett’s command, they will never forget his bravery,” Biden said. “They will never forget that he was right by their side for every minute of it.”

Puckett was long ago awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor in combat, for his actions in the battle on Nov. 25-26, 1950. The clash came near the outset of the Battle of the Chongchon River, and senior U.S. commanders were caught by surprise by China’s full-scale entry into the Korean War.

The effort to upgrade Puckett’s award in the battle began in 2003 when John Lock, a retired officer, sent a petition to the Army. Lock, who had studied Puckett’s actions, submitted numerous requests for consideration over the years, ultimately winning on appeal.

Puckett now moves into a rarefied air, even for Medal of Honor recipients recognized for valor. He also has a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and two Bronze Stars with V device for valor in the Vietnam War, and five Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in combat.

In North Korea, Puckett led the Eighth Army Ranger Company, a force of about 50 soldiers that he helped select and train. He ordered his men to leave him behind as the Americans were in danger of being overrun. Two privates first class, Billy G. Walls and David L. Pollock, refused and carried him to safety. They were later awarded Silver Stars for their own valor.

During the ceremony, Biden sought to highlight not only Puckett’s bravery, but also his open mind. As Puckett assembled his Ranger company for combat in Korea, he included several people of color, just a couple of years after the military had begun to racially integrate, the president said.

Biden also said that as the military weighed how to integrate women in combat units a few years ago, Puckett remarked that he thought some of the women could meet the standards, and that he wanted to see it.

“My mother would say, ‘God love you, man,'” the president said.

The president recounted that as the White House closed in recognizing Puckett, the retired colonel asked, “Why all the fuss?” Puckett had wondered if they could simply mail him the medal, rather than hosting him at the White House.

“Colonel Puckett, after 70 years, rather than mail it to you I would have walked it to you,” Biden said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was among the dignitaries attending, becoming what is believed to be the first head of state to attend a Medal of Honor ceremony. He joined Puckett, his wife, Jean, and their family for a photograph with Biden.

Puckett, in remarks at the Pentagon on Thursday, called for the nation to come together, and warned that adversaries of the United States want to divide Americans.

“While we have many enemies of this country today who want to see us fall, there’s no greater enemy than ourselves,” Puckett said. “We have divided ourselves into tribes and closed our ears to all who would not think we would do what we needed to do.”

Puckett said that the soldiers under his command in Korea “did more than I asked to do the best that they could to maintain our perimeter.”

“They’re the ones who deserve the credit, and I hope that they can get that.”