Colonel Ralph Puckett Jr received the country’s highest military honour, but the president said the 94-year-old veteran asked, “why all the fuss” when invited to the White House ceremony on Friday, adding “can’t they just mail it to me?”
“I was going to make a joke about the post office but decided not to do that,” Mr Biden said. “Colonel Puckett, after 70 years, rather than mail it to you I would have walked it to you. Your lifetime of service to our nation deserves a little bit of fuss.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-In said he was honoured to be the first foreign leader to attend a Medal of Honor ceremony.
“Colonel Puckett is a true hero of the Korean War,” Mr Moon said. “Without the sacrifice of veterans including Colonel Puckett and the 8th Army Ranger Company, freedom and democracy we enjoy today could not have blossomed in Korea.”
Mr Biden invited his South Korean counterpart to meet at the White House as the administration pivots its foreign policy focus to North Korea. The administration plans on laying out his new policy on the rogue state.
"Our goals remain the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, with a clear understanding that the efforts of past administrations have not achieved this objective," a senior administration official told CNN. “We want to engage with our South Korean friends on the way forward.”
At the Medal of Honor presentation ceremony, Mr Moon said that peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula were only possible because of the alliance with the United States “forged in the blood of heroes”.
“Colonel Puckett told me when he was in Korea it was totally destroyed. That was true, but from the ashes of the Korean War we rose, we came back, and that was thanks to the veterans who fought for Korea’s peace and freedom,” he said.
The White House had to change policy for Mr Puckett to receive the Medal of Honor, with the 2020 defence policy bill removing a requirement that awards be given within five years of a valorous act.
Asked why Mr Biden choose Mr Puckett to be the president’s first Medal of Honor recipient, press secretary Jen Psaki said while the 94-year-old was still young, they felt it was important to recognize him while he could celebrate with family.
“Clearly he has an incredible personal story and as part of what the president feels is one of the greatest generations in history,” Ms Psaki said.
As first lieutenant, Mr Puckett helped the 8th US Army Ranger Company secure a strategically important hill near Unsan under intense mortar, machine gun and small arms fire.
He sprinted across the open area to draw fire while others destroyed enemy positions. He survived serious wounds from two mortar rounds that landed in his foxhole, ordering his men to leave him behind as they took the hill.
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