“They called me ‘Doc,’” Vietnam War veteran and Army medic James McCloughan said of his fellow soldiers. “You know … it’s probably one of the best titles I’ve ever had.”
During the bloody, days-long battle of Hui Yon Hill in Vietnam, then Private First Class McCloughan risked his life on nine separate occasions to rescue and treat his wounded comrades despite his own shrapnel injuries from a rocket-propelled grenade.
On Monday, 48 years after the battle, McCloughan received the nation’s highest military honor — the Medal of Honor. McCloughan is the first person to receive the honor from President Trump.
McCloughan represents “America’s unbreakable spirit,” Trump said during the Monday ceremony.
“Private McCloughan carries one immortal title,” the president said. “And that title is hero.”
During the May 1969 battle, the 23-year-old McCloughan was serving in the 21st Infantry Regiment, Americal Division. The first morning of the battle May 13, 1969, McCloughan ran 100 meters through enemy fire across an open field to rescue a wounded soldier. Later that day, he leaped out of a trench to tend to two of his comrades. While McCloughan was examining them, he was hit with shrapnel and started bleeding extensively, but he managed to pull the two men back to the trench.
When medical evacuation helicopters arrived to take wounded soldiers off the field. McCloughan, one of two medics, refused to leave, ignoring orders from his platoon leader.
“You’re going to need me,” McCloughan told him. The other medic, Dan Shea, died the next day, and McCloughan became the unit’s sole medic. He stayed with his company until the fight ended the morning of May 15, continuing to treat casualties while firing back at the enemy.
The Pentagon credited McCloughan with saving the lives of ten members of his company. Looking back decades later, McCloughan called the battle “the worst two days of my life.”
A few months after the battle, McCloughan received orders to transfer to the main hospital in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Decades later, a visibly emotional McCloughan recalled the moment he spoke to his boss about the transfer. “I knew I was going to safety, but I was also leaving my men, and I was their medic,” McCloughan said. “They were glad I was getting out of the field, but they, they didn’t want to lose me as their medic.”
For the last five months of his tour, McCloughan served as the liaison for Americal Division, and was discharged with the rank of Specialist 5.
McCloughan grew up in Bangor, Mich., where he became a varsity athlete in high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Olivet College, then taught and coached sports teams at South Haven Public Schools in Michigan — his dream job. But in August 1968, three months after he started teaching, he was drafted into the Army.
Thanks to his sports background, McCloughan had skills in sports medicine, and he completed advanced training as a medic. On his last day of training at Fort Knox, Ken., the company commander deployed him to Vietnam.
“I’m thinking, ‘He must’ve been wrong. He’s gotta be wrong. I’m staying here,’ ” McCloughan remembered thinking after the announcement. He was so shocked that he spoke to the company commander, who told him that a higher-ranking soldier had wanted his position, which would have allowed him to stay in the U.S.
“Sorry, Private,” the commander said. “You’re going to Vietnam.”
McCloughan took the assignment in stride. “OK, I’m going to serve my country,” he thought.
He went into the field March 1969. After his years as an athlete, McCloughan was in good physical shape in Vietnam, and the mental discipline he’d learned from sports helped him focus while he treated wounded soldiers even during the heat of battle.
After McCloughan returned home in 1970, he earned a master’s degree in counseling and psychology from Western Michigan University, then returned to South Haven High School, where he taught and coached until 2008.
Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter recommended McCloughan for the Medal of Honor in 2016. But according to regulations, the Medal of Honor must be awarded within five years of the action. So three Michigan lawmakers — Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, and Rep. Fred Upton — introduced a bill to waive the five-year provision.
On May 25, 2017, McCloughan received a call from an Army captain informing him that he would receive the award in July.
“I have the president of the United States on the other line,” the captain said.
“I said, ‘Can my wife pick up another phone?’” McCloughan told the Army Times.
McCloughan has earned several other top Army honors for his service, including the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device and Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Purple Heart with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster.
To date, 2,449 Medals of Honor have been awarded to U.S. Army soldiers.
Update [7/31/17 at 3:48 p.m.]: This piece has been updated to reflect Trump’s comments at the Medal of Honor ceremony.
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