The road to the Medal of Honor is never quick or easy, but for former Spc. Jim McCloughan, it took two days of unrelenting fire, 10 lives saved, 48 years and an intervention by Congress to get here.
President Trump draped the military’s highest award around the Vietnam combat medic’s neck Monday in a ceremony at the White House.
“For over two centuries, our brave men and women in uniform have overcome tyranny, fascism, communism, and every single threat – they’ve overcome,” Trump said. ”And we’ve overcome these threats because of titans like Jim, whose spirit could never be conquered.”
McCloughan, 71, was joined by 10 battle buddies from C Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, whom Trump asked to stand and be recognized with a round of applause.
“Today, to 320 million grateful American hearts, [he] carries one title, and that title is ‘hero,’ “ Trump said.
The ceremony was attended by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey and Defense Secretary James Mattis, as well as Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Nadja West and the White House chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly.
“I shall do my best to represent those men as the caretaker of this symbol of courage and action above the call of duty,” McCloughan told reporters following the ceremony. ”I feel proud to have served in the strongest and most compassionate military force in the world.”
The then-23-year-old medic had been plucked from a position as a coach at his alma mater, Olivet College near South Haven, Michigan, in 1968, and sent to Vietnam, where a fateful ambush in May 1969 led to a hellacious two-day battle — 89 American soldiers versus an estimated 2,000 North Vietnamese troops.
Several months after the battle, McCloughan learned that he’d been nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross, but higher-ups downgraded it to a Bronze Star with combat ”V.”
He told some close family about the situation, but when on to teach and coach for 38 years. Soon after his retirement, in 2009, his uncle announce that they had an appointment with their congressman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan.
“Those who give their all in service of their country and fellow man deserve just praise and due credit. For decades, that never came for James McCloughan,” Upton said in a joint statement from Michigan lawmakers. ”On Monday he will finally receive the public gratitude and recognition he duly earned all those years ago on the battlefield when he went above-and-beyond to risk his life for his country.”
Democratic Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters joined the effort after McCloughan applied for his upgrade with the Army. They helped bring the award across the finish line late last year with a provision added to the National Defense Authorization Act, making an exception for McCloughan to receive the award more than five years after the action in question, which is the existing law.
“Specialist James McCloughan served our country honorably and courageously, saving the lives of 10 members of his platoon in Vietnam,” Stabenow said. “We are proud to have played a part in ensuring this American hero finally receives the recognition he deserves.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.