Be proud, but never satisfied: Puckett’s legacy lives on

By Sgt. 1st Class Jorden WeirApril 24, 2024

Col. (Ret.) Ralph Puckett Jr. Medal of Honor portrait
Retired Col. 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. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Garrett Shreffler) VIEW ORIGINAL Editor's Note: Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. will lie in honor at the Capitol rotunda on April 29, 2024. The event will be streamed on DVIDS.

COLUMBUS, Ga. — One-hundred and forty-six servicemembers earned the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Korean War. On April 8, 2024, the last living recipient, retired Col. Ralph Puckett, Jr., who once upon a time led a company of elite U.S. Army Rangers in a fierce battle against a numerically superior enemy force in Korea, passed away peacefully at his home in Columbus.

During the battle in Korea, Puckett led the 8th Army Ranger Company in securing the strategically important Hill 205 near Unsan. It was there that Puckett repeatedly and intentionally sprinted across the open area to draw enemy fire so that his Rangers could find and destroy hidden enemy machine-gunners. Though outnumbered 9 to 1, Puckett's Rangers successfully fought back multiple waves of determined Chinese soldiers before eventually being overrun. At one point, two mortar rounds landed in Puckett’s foxhole, ravaging his feet, backside and left arm. With no regard for his own health and out of concern for the safety of his Rangers, Puckett ordered his men to leave him behind. They refused, instead fighting to his side and carrying him off Hill 205 to safety.

He was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest honor, for his actions and leadership. Seven decades later, on May 21, 2021, it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

To only link the memory of Puckett to this single moment in time, however, would be a massive disservice.

“His story best starts with the heroism that he displayed during the Korean War, where he earned the Medal of Honor,” said Col. J.D. Keirsey, commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment. “And, if that wasn’t enough, he spent his entire life [afterward] fully invested in making Soldiers, leaders, infantrymen and Rangers the best that they could possibly be.”

Aside from his combat accolades in Korea, he also fought in Vietnam; planned, supervised and established a Ranger School in Colombia; was among the first to be inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame; and served as the honorary colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment from 1996-2006.

Well into his 90s it was common to see Puckett in and around Fort Moore, Georgia., either out in the rain at Ranger School, rooting for the students to get their "GO's" on patrol, attending Ranger Selection and Training Program graduations, or cheering competitors on at the Best Ranger Competition.

He wanted to be involved, and more than that, he wanted the best for everyone he met.

“If you knew Col. Puckett, you knew that he had this special knack for instantly seeing what you were made of,” said Gen. James J. Mingus, the vice chief of staff of the Army. “And what you could achieve with just a bit of encouragement and a whole lot of faith.”

Col. (Ret.) Ralph Puckett Jr. Visits the 2023 Best Ranger Competition
Retired Col. Ralph Puckett supports Rangers as they compete for the title of Best Ranger at Ft. Moore, Ga., on Apr. 15, 2023. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jonathan Bryson) VIEW ORIGINAL

Puckett held a deep and powerful belief that, with guts and brains, anyone could rise to the top. He challenged everyone he met to rise above the ordinary.

This included Sgt. 1st Class Caleb Togami, a Ranger assigned to the 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.

“I wasn’t even in the Army the first time I met Col. Puckett,” said Togami. “He was doing a book signing at my brother’s Ranger School graduation. I went up to him to get his book signed and he asked me if I was in the military. I told him, 'No, I am not.'”

Togami continued, “That’s when he stopped writing, looked me dead in the eye, and asked, 'Why not?'”

Togami credits that moment — that sincere, matter-of-fact question, delivered by this legendary Ranger who clearly believed that Togami could make it if he tried — with playing a large role in his decision to join the Army and assess for selection into the 75th Ranger Regiment.

That day Puckett signed Togami’s book with the message: "To Caleb, Best wishes for great success.”

Years later, Togami met Puckett again, and presented him that same book, which Puckett signed a second time: “To SSG Togami (6 years later a U.S. Army Ranger), I’m proud of you!”

The Ranger Regiment is filled with stories like this. Small moments in time where Puckett, with his remarkable ability to make human connections with everyone he met, would impact the lives of those around him.

“Puckett poured his heart and soul into the Ranger community, his entire life,” said Mingus.

Puckett lived the Ranger Creed and regarded all Soldiers, leaders and Rangers as his comrades. To the best of his ability, he tried always to be there for them.

Whether that meant seeking out new lieutenants at the 75th Ranger Regiment to offer his advice or walking the grueling field training exercise lanes to dole out much-needed encouragement to the tired and hungry Ranger School students, he made it a point to always be where he was needed.

Col. (Ret.) Ralph Puckett Jr.'s Left Shoulder patches
Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., Medal of Honor recipient, poses for a photo of his left shoulder patches at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga. on Aug. 10, 2021. (Photo Credit: Photo by U.S. Army Spc. Garrett Shreffler) VIEW ORIGINAL

And in the Global War on Terror era, that often meant going back into dangerous lands.

“I remember seeing him in Afghanistan,” said Keirsey, “This is a man well-past the age limit we place on servicemembers, but you could recognize him at night, under nods, because he was so frequently amongst us. He was there, never failing us when we needed him. Never failing his comrades.”

And although he was widely regarded as a compassionate and caring man, he was also the first to share hard truths, especially with leaders within the Ranger Regiment.

“He would visit our training events,” said Keirsey, “And he would tell us all the great things that Rangers were doing, and then he’d follow it up with a long list of all the things we could be doing better.”

He had a keen understanding that improvement was a lifelong endeavor and that no one, not even Rangers, will ever write the final word on soldiering. His constant message to Rangers was, “You’re the best. You’re the best to ever do it. But you can always be better.”

“That’s his legacy,” said Keirsey, “His legacy is one that tells us we can be better. It takes hard work. Puckett lived that. He showed us how to do it, and we’re glad and very fortunate to have had him as part of our lives and part of our unit.”

Ralph Puckett, by all accounts, was proud of every Ranger and servicemember he ever met. He was very generous with expressing his pride.

“You set the standard for all of us,” he said back in 2023, while speaking at the Best Ranger Competition at Fort Moore. “You’re always on display. You are a Ranger. And that’s something special.”

But with that pride came an uncompromising expectation. Puckett’s call to action.

“I’m proud of you. Be proud of yourselves," he said, "and never be satisfied! You can always do better!”

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