Vietnam Veterans of America
James McCloughan and the Medal of Honor That Surprised Everyone
Former Army Spec. 5 James C. McCloughan, once a combat medic known as “Doc” to members of his platoon and now a VVA life member, came to Washington, D.C., last summer to receive the highest decoration for valor his country can bestow. Yet until a few months earlier, nobody could have imagined it would happen—least of all McCloughan—mainly because nobody had even recommended him for the Medal of Honor.
McCloughan himself said he cried in disbelief when Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) called to tell him the news. If anything, he had thought he might be awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for repeatedly risking his own life to protect and patch up his fellow soldiers during a harrowing and bloody battle long ago in Vietnam.
But the path to acknowledging heroism doesn’t always travel in a straight line or at the fastest speed. For Doc McCloughan, the detours crossed the United States more than once and took nearly half a century, and they had to get around a belief that grunts may not be capable of real bravery.
McCloughan grew up in Bangor, Michigan, where he fell in love with sports. In high school he was a four-sport varsity athlete and later made the wrestling, baseball, and football teams at Olivet College, not far from Battle Creek. Wanting to be a coach, he took courses in kinesiology, physiology, anatomy, first aid, and other related subjects.
Three months after securing a job as a teacher-coach for a local high school in 1968, McCloughan got his draft notice. During basic training at Fort Knox his background in sports medicine made his superiors think he was meant for the medical corps.
“l felt lucky,” McCloughan said. “I was a draftee, and usually you don’t get those kinds of jobs.” Eventually he received his orders designating him as a medic with Company C, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in the Americal Division. Duty station: Republic of Vietnam.
It was early 1969. Though the war raged at one of its peaks—550,000 deployed, more than 11,600 of whom would be killed that year—McCloughan felt good about his assignment. “I thought it would be positive,” he said, “to be trying to save lives in such a negative situation.” He discovered just how negative the situation could be on his first day in country. “We hit an ambush, lost two men, several injured, and I shot my first enemy soldier,” he said. “That was my initiation into being a combat medic.”
Then in mid-May, during an air assault into an area near Tam Ky south of Da Nang, helicopters ferrying Charlie Company came under small arms and machine gun fire as they were about to land. Two were shot down. Others, per standard operating procedure in a hot LZ, hovered about eight or ten feet off the ground while the men jumped off. McCloughan was immediately needed for those injured in the jump.
He then joined a squad going out to try to rescue the pilot and crew of one of the downed choppers, about a hundred meters away. When they
In a trench later, ducking fire from another ambush, McCloughan was peering over the top and saw two wounded men hiding behind a bush. They had no weapons. He leapt out, ran to them, and dragged both back to safety amid the enemy gunfire. Despite having been wounded himself in the process by RPG shrapnel, McCloughan continued—four more times—to run into the kill zone and pull injured comrades into the trench, ignoring a direct order to stay put for his own safety.
The battle lasted a second day. Another ambush killed the only other medic in the company, so McCloughan’s services were in even greater demand. While tending to two wounded Americans in an open rice paddy, he was hit with more shrapnel. Then two NVA companies and a Viet Cong regiment started closing in on Charlie Company with a deadly crossfire; again McCloughan was up running exposed to help the wounded.
Air strikes kept the enemy at bay, but Charlie Company had to spend another night there. Just before dawn, McCloughan used a grenade to knock out an enemy RPG position in between treating his comrades. By the time it was all over, he had saved the lives of ten men.
Randy Clark, McCloughan’s platoon leader, had seen his medic pull some men to safety, though he didn’t realize at the time how many. “During the battle you don’t really have time to see what everybody’s doing all the time,” Clark said. “But I knew he’d saved a couple people. Jim did his job just like we all did a job, but he really did more than most. And of all the soldiers I’d ever served with, he was certainly the best. So I figured I’d put him in for a Silver Star.’”
The recommendation went up to brigade, then came back with the decision to award a Bronze Star. Clark got no explanation, but said “the talk in the barracks afterward was, ‘Randy, you know, typically a grunt sort of guy, enlisted guys, it’s pretty unusual to give them a Silver Star.’”
McCloughan, who knew Clark had put in for a higher decoration, said, “I didn’t go to Vietnam for any medals. I really just wanted to come home, but I was taken aback by the prejudice.” He accepted the Bronze Star, came home, told only his father and his uncle about the strange episode, and went on with his life.
Flash forward forty years. McCloughan had recently retired from the teaching and coaching career he’d always wanted, when his uncle came to him and said he knew someone in a Michigan congressman’s office and was going to ask for help getting his nephew properly recognized for his actions at Tam Ky.
McCloughan found Clark, who said he would be happy to give it another try, but he had a different strategy in mind now. “This time I’d put in for a Distinguished Service Cross, figuring they’d knock it down to a Silver Star,” Clark said.
It may sound simple, but the process turned out to be anything but.
“There were so many forms to fill out,” he continued, “and there was always something about it they didn’t like. The narrative had to be written a certain way.” Additionally, battle maps and witness statements had to accompany the submission, and multiple people from up the former chain of command—including three retired generals—had to be tracked down to sign documents. Electronic or photocopied signatures were not acceptable; the document had to be mailed to one person at a time to sign. As Clark put it, the documents “went leap-frogging around the country.”
The Army rejected the submission at least three times, each one requiring a re-do of the entire process. The next time Clark submitted—about seven years into the effort—everything was in order, but he was told one of the forms he’d filled out was now obsolete. At some point the Army had replaced one of the required forms but failed to tell Clark.
Besides finding out just how bureaucratic the awards process can be, Clark learned something else—from the five witness statements about the very events for which he was recommending McCloughan for a DSC. “In the original submission when I was still in Vietnam, I only wrote what I saw. Having these five other guys from the platoon telling what they saw, filling in blanks, it was like, ‘Holy shit!’ It was a lot more heroic than even I’d given him credit for.”
In 2016 the Army finally deemed the paperwork acceptable and started its review. That October, McCloughan and his wife were in Denver in an IHOP when his cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number and ignored the call. Again the phone rang and he did the same, only this time the caller left a message. McCloughan put the phone on speaker, thinking he and his wife would get a laugh out of listening to a desperate salesman.
“It was Debbie Stabenow,” he said. “And her message was: ‘The exciting news is, your case came across the desk of [then-Secretary
In July 2017, eight years after Clark’s second attempt to get McCloughan recognized, President Trump presented McCloughan with the Medal of Honor. Clark and more than a dozen other members of the platoon attended the ceremony. “They did a bang-up job giving him the medal,” Clark said. “And they couldn’t have picked a better guy to give it to.”
Also that year, VVA made McCloughan a life member. He has saluted the organization for its dedication to never again letting one generation of veterans turn its back on another. “VVA needs to be highly commended and thanked for what and who they are,” McCloughan said.
John Riling, president of VVA’s Michigan State Council, described McCloughan as extremely personable, someone happy to take time to talk with anyone. He’s hoping to have McCloughan attend the VVA Michigan State Convention in June possibly as a guest speaker—and maybe even as a singer. At a function in Battle Creek not long ago, Riling heard McCloughan sing the National Anthem. “He’s got a great voice,” Riling said.
McCloughan also apparently has great faith. He said there’s another reason it took nearly fifty years to get a medal others thought he deserved: “God has a plan.”
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