Webster’s Dictionary defines a hero as, “A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.” With Noah Webster’s concurrence I would add, “and doesn’t talk about it.”
That would aptly describe 94-year-old retired Col. Ralph Puckett, of Columbus, the latest recipient of the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration given to a member of the armed forces which was presented to him in May by Pres. Joe Biden in the Oval Office.
In our nation’s history, of the 40 million Americans who have served in the military, slightly more than 3,400 – less than 1 percent – have been awarded the Medal of Honor since its inception in 1862.
In 1950, during a ferocious battle in Korea then-1st Lt. Ralph Puckett exposed himself to enemy machine guns to enable his Army Rangers to identify their locations. That evening, he and his 51-man company defended themselves for hours against hundreds of Chinese soldiers who were attacking their position.
Puckett repeatedly left the safety of his foxhole to spot the enemy and direct artillery fire, sometimes ordering shells dropped dangerously close to his own position to keep the Chinese at bay.
In doing so, he was wounded several times and eventually unable to move. Fearing they were about to be overrun, Lt. Puckett ordered his men to fall back and leave him behind so as not to slow them down. His fellow Rangers ignored his order and carried him to safety.
Offered a medical discharge for his wounds, Puckett refused and continued to serve his country, including a combat tour in Vietnam where his valor earned him a Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars before retiring from active duty in 1971.
So, why after 70 years are we just now getting around to recognizing Col. Ralph Puckett with the Medal of Honor? Because he never told anyone about the experience. He was just doing his job. It took others to recognize his feats of courage and to make the case through the military chain of command that he was deserving of the singular honor. Had they not, we would be writing on another subject today.
My friend, Pam Malone with whom I share a love of art and painting, told me that while Puckett and his wife, Jean, were friends and neighbors of hers and her family for a number of years, she only learned of his heroic deeds when someone told her they had seen him on television in the Oval Office receiving the Medal of Honor from the president. Such are the ways of heroes.
Friends say Col. Puckett even questioned why the White House would go to all the trouble of presenting the award to him. At the ceremony, Pres. Biden quipped, “I understand that your first response to us hosting this event was to ask ‘Why all the fuss? Can’t they just mail it to me?’”
To add to the significance of the ceremony, it was the first attended by a foreign world leader. Ironically, it turned out to be South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was in town to meet with the president.
“Col. Puckett is a true hero of the Korean War,” Moon said in remarks during the ceremony. “Without the sacrifice of veterans including Col. Puckett, [the] freedom and democracy we enjoy today couldn’t have blossomed in Korea.”
I had the unique experience a few years back of attending a dinner in Atlanta hosted by the Medal of Honor Foundation with 36 recipients who were in town visiting local schools.
The person who issued me the invitation gave me one caution: Do not use the word “winner” when talking to them. Medal of Honor recipients find that term offensive and won’t hesitate to tell you so. They didn’t “win” anything. They received recognition that to a person they would say could have been given to any number of their comrades. It is almost as if they are embarrassed at the attention for doing what they were trained to do as was Col. Ralph Puckett.
True to form, he said, “The people who earned that medal are the Rangers who did more than I asked. They’re the ones who did the job; they did the fighting and suffered.”
Thank you, Col. Puckett for your service and for reminding us that there are still some honest-to-God heroes among us today. It took 70 years to find out but it was worth the wait.
• Dick Yarbrough is a four-time winner of the Best Humor Column by the Georgia Press Association. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.