Decades of legal battles and impassioned pleas on behalf of Kentucky World War II veteran Garlin Murl Conner ended Tuesday in spectacular fashion, as his wife accepted his posthumous Medal of Honor from President Donald Trump.
"Today we pay tribute to this Kentucky farm boy who stared down evil with the strength of a warrior and the heart of a true hero," Trump said during the White House ceremony.
Pauline Conner accepted the award personally in the White House's East Room, where she embraced the president.
"She told me she voted for Trump," the president said to laughter from the crowd.
Garlin Murl Conner died in 1998, when he was 79.
The saga began more than 20 years ago, when a friend noticed Conner’s military awards in a cardboard box at the bottom of his Army duffel bag.
Conner didn’t talk much about his 28 months in combat, said his wife Pauline, and she hardly knew of his decorated past.
So when Richard Chilton, a former Army Green Beret researching his uncle, who served with Conner, discovered the details of Conner's heroics, the fight began to upgrade Conner’s Distinguished Service Cross to a Medal of Honor, the highest military award that can be bestowed on an American service member.
In 1997, the Army board rejected Conner’s initial Medal of Honor application, citing insufficient evidence and his appeal failed in 2000. Conner’s application got new life when Pauline Conner gathered eyewitness accounts and submitted it to the board again in 2008.
By then, though, two years had passed since the statute of limitations had expired.. When Conner's advocates took the case to court, a federal judge called for mediation. The board, going against the advice of its staff, then found there was enough evidence to award the medal.
“He was my hero,” Pauline Conner said Monday. “He was for 53 years and he still is.”
While serving in Houssen, France, in January 1945, Garlin Murl Conner slipped away from the hospital, where he was nursing a combat injury -- one of seven he would sustain during the war. He rendezvoused with his unit, and volunteered to run into enemy fire. Using a field telephone, his goal was to inform American artillery of German movements.
He proceeded to direct artillery fire on his own position as he crouched in a shallow irrigation ditch, and is credited with blocking the advance of six German tanks and 600 German infantrymen.
Conner’s telephone was “the most deadly instrument on the battlefield” that day, said Major General Leopoldo Quintas, who commands the 3rd Infantry Division, Conner’s former division.
“This is a legacy for our soldiers to remember and embrace in what might be called upon them to do,” Quintas said.
Conner also earned four Silver Stars, one Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts during more than two straight years of combat.
The Medal of Honor, though, is reserved for extraordinary acts of valor that go beyond the call of duty.
It's possible that Conner is the second-most decorated American World War II veteran, said Erik Villard, a historian at the Center for Military History, although those determinations are "fraught with challenges." But Conner likely wouldn't have minded either way, he said.
"I don't think Conner would've given that a second thought," Villard said. "He wouldn't be interested in knowing who was first, second or third."
After the war, Conner returned to farming and later volunteered with his wife to assist other veterans.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R- Kentucky, who attached an amendment to this year's defense policy bill that opened the door for legally recognizing Conner, applauded the couple on the Senate floor Monday.
“Without Pauline’s patience and steadfast resolve, there would be no recognition tomorrow,” he said. “This humble man never called himself a hero, so it’s incumbent upon us to do just that.”
In March, Pauline Conner got a phone call from Trump, who told her the good news. She said she was skeptical when she got the message that she should prepare for the “important phone call” to follow.
“I didn’t think it would ever happen. I gave up on it a long time ago,” she said. “ I thought it could possibly be a scam because I’m 89-years-old and people like to prey on people like me.”