Col. (Ret.) Ralph Puckett Jr., Medal of Honor recipient, poses with members of the 75th Ranger Regiment at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga. on Aug. 10, 2021. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Garrett Shreffler).

Sen. Joni Ernst is one of the lead lawmakers crafting legislation that directly impacts American service members and veterans, but she found herself choking up Monday remembering how her own military service had been shaped by the mentorship and friendship with Col. Ralph Puckett.

“You would think he was a librarian. He was so quiet and so humble and he was such a good man,” Ernst told Task & Purpose Monday, as her voice occasionally caught with emotion. For decades, Ernst said, Puckett was a mentor and example to generations around the 75th Ranger Regiment, she said, including herself as a young lieutenant in the Army Reserve.

“Even into his seventies and eighties, he was still going out into the field with the rangers just to make sure their spirits were high and to ensure that they were doing okay,” she said. “Not many people continue to serve like that well beyond their time.”

On Monday, Puckett became just the second Medal of Honor recipient to lie in honor, meaning his remains were accorded a public audience in the rotunda of Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. so that lawmakers and the public could pay personal respects. Ernst was among the Senators who arranged for the honor.

Puckett, 97, is among the most revered figures in the history of the Army Ranger community. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in the Korean War and the Distinguished Service Cross in Vietnam. Both awards came for courageous leadership of units facing annihilation by an overwhelmingly larger enemy force — the 8th Army Ranger Company in Korea, a unit of the 101st Airborne Divisionin Vietnam. Puckett passed away April 8 at his home in Columbus, Georgia. 

On Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also paid his respects to Puckett’s casket in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. 

“Col. Puckett was emblematic of the 1.7 million Americans who bravely served in the Korean War and an inspiration to those who served after him, defending peace on the Korean peninsula for the last 71 years,” a spokesperson for the Pentagon said in a statement.  

Ernst said her relationship with Puckett went back more than 30 years. She first met Puckett and his family when she was living in Columbus, Georgia at then-Fort Benning, now Fort Moore, as a Ranger spouse. There, she saw the retired Colonel interact and mentor various soldiers in the Ranger regiment and students at Ranger school.

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When Ernst deployed to Iraq, she said Puckett always took the time to send her emails to check in and ask how things were doing. Ernst served in the Army Reserves as a logistics officer for over 23 years and retired as a Lt. Col. In 2003, she served as a company commander in Kuwait and led 150 Iowa Army Guardsmen during Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Congressional Tribute and Lying in Honor for Col. Ralph Puckett, Jr., the last surviving Medal of Honor Recipient for acts performed during the Korean Conflict, held in the Capitol Rotunda, Washington, DC on April 29, 2024. (Official U.S. Senate photo by Rosa Pineda)
Senator Joni Ernst at the April 29 Lying in Honor ceremony for Col. Ralph Puckett, Jr. at the U.S. Capitol.

Ernst recalled a memory during a trip to Fort Moore several years back when she was introducing Puckett to her national security adviser. They had a meeting that lasted several hours and then the group made their way back to the parking lot with Puckett walking a few steps ahead. 

“Every soldier in that parking lot, they all just stopped and they watched Ralph walk across the parking lot. I mean, they were just in awe. It was like they were dumb struck. It was like some famous Hollywood actor was walking across the parking lot,” she said. “You could tell the admiration and respect from complete strangers as this elderly man just simply walked to his car. It just struck me then how well loved this man was by his community.”

The defense of Hill 205

Puckett is one of the most revered figures in Army Ranger lore. In Korea, he led the defense of a position dubbed Hill 205 against a force of Chinese soldiers several times larger than his 51-man Ranger unit during the Korean War. The Rangers faced six waves of assault. Puckett led the defense, assigning Rangers to soft spots in the lines, running ammunition between positions and encouraging his soldiers. On the final wave, two mortars landed in Puckett’s foxhole. Knowing the position was lost, he ordered his men to leave him and evacuate. Instead, they dragged him down the hill as they retreated. In May 2021, his DSC for Hill 205 was upgraded to the Medal of Honor after years of lobbying from the Ranger community.

A second award at Duc Pho

Over a decade later, he commanded 101st Airborne Division paratroopers in a similar defensive stand in Vietnam. In August 1967, then-Lt. Col. Puckett was a battalion commander near Duc Pho. The citation for his second Distinguished Service cross reads that facing a large Viet Cong force,“Puckett landed in the battle zone to coordinate defenses and to assess the battlefield situation. Disregarding his own safety, he moved across a heavily mined area to the point of the most ferocious fighting to direct and inspire his men against the hostile force.” To avoid artillery fire, Puckett scattered his leader ranks, and led from a foxhole. As he’d done in Korea, he bounced between positions, bringing ammunition and encouragement.

“When rescue helicopters came in,” the citation reads, “he repeatedly refused extraction for himself and directed that the casualties be evacuated. With bullets striking all around him, he remained in the open to rally his fatigued men through the long night by sharing every phase of the battle with them.”

After retiring in 1971, Puckett remained a Ranger icon.. The top officer in every Ranger School class receives an award named him, which Puckett would present well into his 90s. His name is also used for an annual leadership award for junior officers within the Ranger Regiment. He was also named the first honorary colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment in 1996 — a ceremonial post in which he regularly spoke to new Rangers and represented the regiment in public.

Lying in honor

Lying in honor is a memorial service occasionally bestowed by Congress on highly distinguished Americans. It is akin to “lying in state,” though that status is reserved for former Presidents and distinguished politicians, such as former Sen. John McCain.

Puckett was the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War. The precedent of a final-living Medal of Honor recipient lying in honor was set in 2022 when lawmakers honored the last living World War II Medal of Honor recipient, Cpl. Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams, Ernst told Task & Purpose. Other notable figures who have had the honor of lying in honor include Rosa Parks and U.S. Capitol police officers killed during

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