Senate OKs bill making vet eligible for Medal of Honor

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Congress is sending President Barack Obama a defense spending bill that includes a provision to make a Vietnam War veteran, James C. McCloughan of South Haven, eligible for the Medal of Honor.

The National Defense Authorization Act, approved Thursday by the Senate in a 92-7 vote, includes language from a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, that would make benefits available to veterans who may have been discharged in error due to behavior stemming from trauma during their service.

Private First Class McCloughan, who served as a medic, saved the lives of 10 members of his platoon who were wounded over two days during the Battle of Nui Yon Hill on May 13-15, 1969.

McCloughan’s lieutenant first inquired about honoring McCloughan with the Distinguished Service Cross but was told it wasn’t awarded to privates first class, McCloughan said. He received the bronze Stars with “V” device for valor instead.

Forty-seven years later, Defense Secretary Ash Carter recommended in October that McCloughan receive not the Distinguished Service Cross but the Medal of Honor.

“It’s not something that happens to too many people, of course. I’m very excited for my men. This is not a Jim McCloughan award. This is a Charlie Company award,” said McCloughan, now a 70-year-old retired high school teacher.

“It’s for the guys who together helped each other make it through that battle. I could have never done my job without them.”

Typically, Medal of Honor recipients must be honored within five years of the act that justifies the award. The bill in Congress waives the five-year period for McCloughan and, when signed into law, would make it possible for the president to award the medal to him.

“Today, we are one step closer to awarding him the long overdue recognition he deserves,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, praised the bipartisan work to help McCloughan get the recognition he “duly earned on the battlefield.”

Peters’ Fairness for Veterans Act unanimously passed the Senate in June and was incorporated into the conference bill the chamber approved Thursday.

Peters, a former lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserves, learned about the issue of bad-paper discharges from a homeless Marine veteran in western Michigan who served in Afghanistan.

Veterans can be denied Veterans Administration health care and other benefits if they received dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharges. However, the military and veterans’ advocates are finding thousands of former service members had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries at the time of their discharge.

The measure focuses on the military review boards that examine the cases of veterans who have applied to upgrade the terms of their less-than-honorable discharge.

It changes policy so that when a veteran’s post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury is related to combat or military sexual trauma, the review board should grant a “rebuttable presumption” in favor of the veteran that their PTSD or traumatic brain injury contributed to their discharge.

Peters hopes it will make a difference for the Marine he met who remains homeless in the Grand Rapids area.

“It will be a very important day for tens of thousands of veterans who are often suffering alone and not aware that they are among a very large group of people with PTSD who never had it diagnosed,” he said.

The legislation includes a requirement that Peters pushed to provide American-made athletic shoes to new military service members. The Department of Defense already requires American-made uniforms, combat boots and dress shoes for members of the military.

Peters said the company Wolverine Worldwide in Big Rapids makes DOD-compliant military footwear under the brand Bates and is likely to compete for the Defense Department’s athletic shoe contract.

mburke@detroitnews.com