Trump honors South Haven vet with Medal of Honor

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Donald Trump on Monday presented the Medal of Honor — the military’s highest award — to former U.S. Army combat medic James C. McCloughan of South Haven for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” during a bloody, two-day Vietnam War battle in 1969.

President Donald Trump bestows the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, to retired Army medic James McCloughan during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House Monday, July 31, 2017, in Washington.

“Today, we pay tribute to a veteran who went above and beyond the call of duty to protect our comrades, our country and our freedom,” Trump said in an East Room ceremony.

“We honor you. We salute you. And with God as your witness, we thank you for what you did for all of us.”

Trump called McCloughan a hero, saying his life represents "America's unbreakable spirit." The president hugged the 71-year-old retired school teacher after presenting him the medal.

McCloughan, known as "Doc" to his men, joins a distinguished group of 3,500 U.S. service members who have received the award since its creation during the Civil War. Seventy-one medal recipients are still living, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Eight of them attended Monday’s ceremony.

McCloughan was 23 years old and had been in Vietnam just over two months when his company was flown by helicopter into an area near the coastal village of Tam Ky, at the base of Nui Yon Hill.

The company came under heavy assault and the resulting battle lasted two days and two nights, May 13-15, 1969. McCloughan is credited with saving the lives of at least 10 men in his company, pulling many wounded from the field under heavy fire, despite being wounded himself on three separate occasions. He treated dozens of others during the 48 hours of close combat.

The 89 troops from Charlie Company were tremendously outnumbered but, with the help of air support, held their ground against 1,500 to 2,000 enemy forces until the North Vietnamese retreated.

McCloughan told reporters it was “humbling” to receive the award, and that his heart is with the families of those who didn’t survive.

“This medal is about love – a love so deep in the soul of 89 men who fought the battle for Nui Yon Hill that it is impossible to measure,” McCloughan said.

“I shall do my best to represent those men as the caretaker of this symbol of courage and action beyond the call of duty. This is a great nation to live in, and I feel privileged to have served in the strongest and most compassionate military force in the world.”

The last Medal of Honor recipient was another Michigan man, Maj. Charles S. Kettles of Ypsilanti, a helicopter pilot who was awarded the medal a year ago for his role in a 1967 battle near Duc Pho, Vietnam.

It was Trump’s first time presenting the Medal of Honor as president. The ceremony was attended by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, as well as Defense Secretary James Mattis; Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin; new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly; National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster; and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump.

The crowd included 100 of McCloughan’s family and friends, his wife Cherie, brothers Mike and Tom, his sons Jamie and Matt, and 10 men from his company – three of whom he saved.

“Whoever called, ‘Medic,’ could immediately count on McCloughan," Trump said.

"He would not yield, he would not rest, and he would not stop, and he would not flinch in the face of sure death and definite danger. ... Jim, I know I speak for every person here when I say we are in awe of your actions and your bravery."

After the battle, McCloughan’s lieutenant inquired about honoring McCloughan with the Distinguished Service Cross but the award was downgraded and McCloughan instead received the bronze Stars with “V” device for valor. He was discharged from the Army with the rank of Specialist 5.

The award nomination was revived about eight years ago, and last fall Defense Secretary Ash Carter recommended that McCloughan receive not the Distinguished Service Cross, but the Medal of Honor.

Typically, Medal of Honor recipients must be honored within five years of the act that justifies the award, so members of Michigan’s congressional delegation worked to include a provision in a defense bill that made McCloughan eligible for the medal. President Barack Obama signed the bill Dec. 23.

The law waived the five-year period for McCloughan and made it possible for the president to award McCloughan the medal.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who worked on getting the measure into law, met McCloughan Friday in her office.

“He is such a role model – not only for courage and service in the face of tremendous threats to his own life, but he’s gone on to have a wonderful life of service, including being very dedicated to coaching and young people,” Stabenow said Monday before the ceremony.

“He really is someone who has lived his values his whole life and is extremely deserving of today’s award. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

McCloughan grew up in Bangor, Michigan, where he was a four-star athlete at Bangor High School. He graduated from Olivet College in 1968 before getting a job teaching and coaching at South Haven Public High School.

Before he could start the job, he was drafted by the Army at age 22. He trained as a medical specialist and was deployed to Vietnam from March 1969 to March 1970.

During the latter part of his tour, he was assigned to the 91st Evacuation Hospital, where he served as the liaison to the Americal Division, reporting all wounded and dead to division leadership and the American Red Cross, he said. McCloughan's post included servingas a guide for division officers who would come to the hospital to visit their wounded.

After returning home from Vietnam, McCloughan taught for 38 years at South Haven High School, where he also coached baseball, wrestling and football.

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