When Chuck Hughes finished high school in Whitesville, W.Va., at age 17, he had two choices: work in the coal mines or enlist in the military.
He chose the latter. Before he turned 19, Hughes would be stationed as an Army infantryman in Pusan, South Korea, during some of the deadliest fighting of the Korean War. The deployment required no small amount of bravery.
"When we got to Korea, our life expectancy was a maximum of nine days," he recalled.
"Everybody had to make out their wills and everything. We knew we were going to be sacrificed."
Hughes was injured three times and spent more than three years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering.
After retiring as a staff sergeant in 1958, Hughes moved to Kentucky — first to Rockcastle County, where he owned a small farm, then to Versailles after taking a job at Ruggles Sign Co., where he worked for nearly 50 years.
On Wednesday night, he received the latest award in a life full of distinction: the National Infantry Association's Order of Saint Maurice Award.
The medal is reserved for those who have "contributed to the infantry in ways that stand out in the eyes of the recipient's seniors, subordinates and peers," said Army Lt. Col. Don Peters, Hughes' friend and neighbor. Peters nominated Hughes for the award in November and presented it to him at Hughes' home on Paddock Drive.
Hughes, wiping tears from his eyes with a handkerchief, said after a short ceremony that he had no idea he had been nominated.
His first indication was when he stepped outside Wednesday and was greeted by reporters, members of his extended family and Peters' family.
Why was he so snappily dressed if the award was a surprise? "My wife told me the photographer's coming and we're going to have our family picture made," he said.
Hughes, a slight, kindly man, spoke about his military service after the ceremony.
He enlisted in 1949 and received basic training at Fort Knox. He was then sent to Okinawa, Japan, where he served with the 29th Infantry Regiment. When the Korean War began in 1950, he was one of the first soldiers deployed.
He was first wounded that year, when a bullet sliced into his boot and hit a bone in his lower leg. After a dose of raw penicillin and a bandage or two, he was back in action.
The following year, he was shot in the chest, and his shoulder was injured when a projectile hit a boat in which he was riding.
Hughes has been awarded two Purple Hearts, the Combat Infantry Badge and the Bronze Star for Valor.
Though Hughes and Peters lived about a mile from each other for four years, they did not meet until a 2008 reunion of the 29th Infantry Regiment in Fort Benning, Ga., when they overheard one another talking about Kentucky.
Peters called Hughes an inspiration to all young soldiers.
"Anyone who is not even 18 years old, who would go through that, is obviously an American hero," Peters said. "They don't hand out Bronze Stars for nothing."