Now, those soldiers, several of whom McCloughan saved during the ferocious, dayslong Battle of Nui Yon Hill in 1969, will have a new name for him: Medal of Honor recipient.
Army spokeswoman Valerie L. Mongello said Tuesday that the 71-year-old from South Haven, Michigan, will become the first person to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor by President Donald Trump.
“I feel honored to be able to accept this for the 89 men that fought that battle,” McCloughan (pronounced muh-CLOO’-uhn) said, referencing the number of American combatants, dozens of whom were killed, wounded or went missing during the 48 hours of fighting against hundreds of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
Then a 23-year-old private first class who was drafted a year earlier after earning a degree in sociology from Olivet College, McCloughan repeatedly entered the “kill zone” to rescue wounded comrades, despite being pelted with shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade.
McCloughan “voluntarily risked his life on nine separate occasions to rescue wounded and disoriented comrades,” the White House said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “He suffered wounds from shrapnel and small arms fire on three separate occasions, but refused medical evacuation to stay with his unit, and continued to brave enemy fire to rescue, treat, and defend wounded Americans.”
McCloughan described the shrapnel as “a real bad sting,” during an interview with The Associated Press at his South Haven home, not far from Lake Michigan. “But at that particular time, I was tending to two guys and dragging them at the same time into a trench line.
“I looked down, and I was covered with blood,” McCloughan said of the wound that prompted a captain to suggest he leave the battlefield to receive aid.
McCloughan had different ideas.
“He knew me enough to know that I wasn’t going, and he better listen to me.”
McCloughan stuck around until the battle’s conclusion, coming to the aid of his men and fighting the enemy, at one point knocking out an enemy RPG position with a grenade. In all, the Pentagon credits McCloughan with saving the lives of 10 members of his company.
McCloughan called the battle “the worst two days of my life.”
The Medal of Honor is awarded to members of the Armed Forces who distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry above and beyond the call of duty while: engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States; engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.
McCloughan has already earned a slew of other awards, including the Combat Medical Badge, two Bronze Stars, the U. S. Army Valorous Unit Citation and the National Defense Medal. He also earned two Purple Hearts, having been shot in the arm in addition to taking the RPG shrapnel.
McCloughan left the Army in 1970, and for the next four decades he taught psychology and sociology and coached football, baseball and wrestling at South Haven High School before retiring in 2008.
Then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recommended McCloughan for the Medal of Honor last year. There was a problem, however: The medal needs to be awarded within five years of the recipient’s heroic actions. But Congress can waive the time limit, which is what happened in McCloughan’s case.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow reached McCloughan on his cellphone to deliver the news while he and his wife, Cherie, were eating at an IHOP in Colorado. The McCloughans burst into tears at the conclusion of the call. James McCloughan said he told their server what was going on, because “I didn’t want her to think we were fighting or something.”
President Barack Obama signed legislation in late 2016 that allowed for the time-limit waiver in McCloughan’s case, paving the way for him to receive the medal. But it didn’t happen before Obama left office in January, meaning it now falls to Trump to do the honors.
“President Donald Trump will be putting that on me for the first time in his experience of doing such a thing,” McCloughan said. “That’s pretty special.”