WASHINGTON – President Bush apologized Monday that the country waited decades to honor Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble for his military valor in Korea, giving him the Medal of Honor more than 25 years after he died.
Master Sgt. Keeble is the first Sioux Indian to receive the nation's highest military award. But it came almost six decades after he saved the lives of fellow soldiers. Keeble died in 1982.
"On behalf of our grateful nation, I deeply regret that this tribute comes decades too late," Bush said at the White House medal ceremony. "Woody will never hold this medal in his hands or wear it on his uniform. He will never hear a president thank him for his heroism. He will never stand here to see the pride in his friends and loved ones."
But, Bush said, there are things the nation can still do for Keeble, even all these years later.
"We can tell his story and we can honor his memory and we can follow his lead," the president said before a somber East Room audience that included three rows of Keeble's family members.
Fellow soldiers, family members and others have been urging Congress for years to award Keeble the medal. They said the man known as "Chief," a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribe, deserves the medal for his actions in Korea in 1951, when he saved the lives of other soldiers by taking out more than a dozen of their enemies on a steep hill, even though he himself was wounded.
Pentagon officials had said the legal deadline had passed to award the medal to Keeble unless Congress specifically authorized it. Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; and John Thune, R-S.D., introduced legislation to award Keeble the medal, and it was signed by Bush last year.
The four Dakotas senators say Keeble's men twice recommended him for the Medal of Honor earlier but the paperwork was lost. He instead received the Distinguished Service Cross.
"He felt he was cheated," Bush said. "Yet Woody never complained. See, he believed America was the greatest nation on earth — even when it made mistakes."
Keeble, who was born in Waubay, S.D., moved to North Dakota as a child. He was also a veteran of World War II and received more than 30 citations, including four Purple Hearts.
Bush saluted Keeble for his military heroism, but also for his conduct in his personal life — pursing a woman he loved, becoming "an everyday hero" in his community and maintaining cheerfulness — despite his own grief and physical suffering. The wounds he suffered in Korea would "haunt him the rest of his life" and strokes paralyzed his right side and took away his ability to speak.
"One of the great soldiers became a good Samaritan," the president said.