Donald Trump gives rare hug to Normandy veteran Russell Pickett

Donald Trump gives rare hug to Normandy veteran Russell Pickett

Private Russell Pickett was 19 when he stormed the sands of Omaha Beach in June 1944 as part of D-Day's notorious 'suicide wave.' The elite troops, who served in Company A of the 116th Infantry, ferociously fought the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy, leading the charge that eventually ended World War 2. However, victory came at an enormous cost, as they suffered 50% casualties.

When the attack began, Private Pickett was on a boat holding a flame thrower. German gunfire immediately struck the vessel and and he lost consciousness, waking up in shallow water on the beach. "I tried to get up and my legs wouldn't work," he recalled to ABC in 2016. "I wasn't hurting anywhere, scared to death of course which that might have been what was wrong with me."

Rescuing American soldiers on Omaha Beach, Normandy in June 1944 Credit: Getty

A nearby boat hauled Pickett to safety and fortunately he survived his injuries, although he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. "A company was 96 percent casualty within the first 30-45 minutes," said Pickett, who served in the 29th Infantry Division. "[They] figured half of them dead. The other half of the casualties wounded which I was one of the casualties."

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of WW2, President Trump visited the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, Franch. In his speech, he recognized several surviving World War II veterans. "Russell Pickett is the last known survivor of the legendary company A," Trump said. "Today, believe it or not, he has returned once more to these shores to be with his comrades. Private Pickett, you honor us all with your presence."

The president, an admitted germaphobe, then showed a rare display of emotion by giving the 94-year-old veteran a hug (although he has famously hugged the American flag and Kanye West.) After Trump singled out Pickett in his remarks, French President Emmanuel Macron helped the former private to his feet. Picket and Trump embraced, and the president whispered something in his ear.

Trump has often shown reverence for the military, but he has also made several disparaging remarks about veterans. He reportedly told a grieving widow that her son "knew what he signed for," feuded with a Gold Star family whose won was killed in action in Iraq, and cruelly insulted Purple Heart Vietnam war hero John McCain, who suffered five years of torture and captivity. "He’s a war hero because he was captured," Trump said in a 2015 interview. "I like people who weren’t captured."

During the Vietnam War, Trump was eligible to serve, but did not. While McCain suffered at the hands of the Vietnamese, Trump was enrolled at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He received student deferments until he graduated in 1968, at which point he was "available for service" and would have been drafted. However, he received a medical disqualification due to bone spurs. The podiatrists' daughters say this diagnosis made as a favor to Fred Trump so his son Donald could avoid military service.

While speaking to Piers Morgan on Wednesday, President Trump said he would have preferred to serve in World War 2 instead of Vietnam. "I thought it was a terrible war," Trump said. "I thought it was very far away, and at that time nobody ever heard of the country. So many people dying, what is happening over there? So I was never a fan - like we're fighting against Nazi Germany, we're fighting against Hitler."

"I think I make up for it right now," Trump added, referring to how he has increased the Pentagon's budget since taking office.