President Trump on Monday presented the Medal of Honor to an Army veteran who 48 years ago repeatedly risked his life to save 10 fellow soldiers during a deadly, days-long fight along Vietnam’s central coast.
In recognizing James McCloughan, now a 71-year-old retired teacher from Michigan, Trump recounted a gripping tale of selflessness and bravery, sliding off script occasionally to emphasize just how hellish the battle was and to marvel that McCloughan and the other Americans who survived managed to overcome such extraordinary odds.
“He was one of 32 who fought until the end,” the president said, glancing at McCloughan, who stood stoically a few steps to Trump’s right, “and they held their ground against more than 2,000 enemy troops. Jim, I know I speak for everyone here when I say we are in awe of your actions and your bravery.”
The brief but poignant White House ceremony marked the first time that Trump has presented the nation’s highest combat award. Among the attendees were 10 men who fought alongside McCloughan at Tam Ky in May 1969, including five whose lives the former combat medic is credited with saving, Trump said.
McCloughan’s Medal of Honor is the second for their unit: Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment. Another medic, Pfc. Dan Shea, was killed during the same operation while carrying a wounded soldier to safety. For his courageousness, Shea was recognized posthumously in 1971.
Just 23 when his unit hit the field in March 1969, McCloughan and his fellow soldiers encountered a ferocious enemy determined to repulse the Americans at all costs.
“I got initiated the very first day,” he recalled in a recent interview with Army biographers. “We hit our first ambush. We had a man die. Had a few people to patch up. And I shot a man. That’s a lot to digest in your first day. But I didn’t know I was going to face anything like Tam Ky.”
It is difficult to assess which of McCloughan’s near-death encounters at Tam Ky was the most harrowing. There were so many. During the vicious 48-hour battle, McCloughan — who was known as Doc — risked his life at least nine times to save wounded or stranded comrades, and he helped prevent the much larger North Vietnamese force from overrunning them.
“As one of his comrades recalled,” Trump said, “whoever called ‘medic’ could immediately count on McCloughan. He’s a brave guy. … He crawled through a rice paddy thick with steel rain. That means bullets all over the place. As soldiers watched him, they were sure that was the last time they would see Doc. They thought that was the end of their friend Jim.”
The operation began May 13, 1969. That morning, elements of Charlie Company were flown into the foliage just a few miles from the coast. They came under immediate attack, and two U.S. helicopters were shot down.
McCloughan joined a squad of soldiers sent to locate one of the helicopter crews, according to the Army’s account of his actions. When they arrived at the crash site, he spotted a soldier too injured to move. As his squad mates exchanged fire with North Vietnamese forces, McCloughan sprinted to reach the man, hoisted him onto his shoulder and carried him to safety.
Later, McCloughan’s platoon suffered heavy casualties when they were ambushed by a larger North Vietnamese force while scouting a nearby hill. With U.S. airstrikes falling nearby, he left his weapon and ran toward two unarmed soldiers who were pinned down.
While assessing them for injuries, McCloughan was sprayed with shrapnel from the blast of a rocket-propelled grenade. He carried the men to safety despite his wounds.
McCloughan would make similar trips at least four more times, ignoring his commander’s orders to stay back and instead charging into a kill zone to save the wounded.
The next day was devastating. As McCloughan and his platoon moved through a trench line, they saw North Vietnamese soldiers ahead. A battle erupted, and his fellow medic Shea was cut down.
“I got him, got his body, and now I’m the only medic,” McCloughan recounted. “So I downed my pack near a tree, and got all of my pressure bandages out of there and put them in all of the pockets that I had. … And now I start going to get men.”
Amid the frenzy, McCloughan suffered additional wounds from small-arms fire and shrapnel, but he refused to leave his unit without a medic. As the battle reached its peak, Charlie Company was nearly enveloped by hundreds of enemy fighters. McCloughan ran through the crossfire again and again to pull out the wounded.
He encountered a soldier who had been shot in the stomach, patched him up as best he could and “carried him like a baby” into a nearby trench where he would be safe. A machine-gunner had been shot through the shoulder. McCloughan treated him and moved him to the trench. There were four or five others in really bad shape, he recalled. McCloughan brought them into the trench, too, hopeful they could be saved.
That night, when the soldiers had run low on ammunition, McCloughan volunteered to crawl into the open carrying a light so a helicopter with their gear could locate them. But the supplies never came. He continued to treat casualties into the next morning, helping fend off attacks and keeping two seriously wounded soldiers alive.
On the third day he helped gather the dead and the wounded so the unit could be evacuated.
After the battle, McCloughan’s commander nominated him for the Distinguished Service Cross, which falls second to the Medal of Honor in the military’s awards hierarchy. He received a Bronze Star instead, fourth on the list of combat awards.
In 2009, his commander pushed the cause again, McCloughan told the Army Times in June. The Pentagon felt that his actions merited the Medal of Honor, but legislation was necessary to override a statute requiring such awards to be approved within five years of the battlefield action.
Last year, members of Michigan’s congressional delegation included such a provision in the annual defense spending bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law before leaving office. Trump called McCloughan in May to tell him the good news.
McCloughan’s combat tour ended in March 1970. He left the Army and eventually returned home to South Haven, Mich., where he became a high school teacher. He also coached football, baseball and wrestling. He retired in 2008.
Reflecting on his experience 48 years later, McCloughan explained to the Army’s biographers that he was unsettled on learning that he would be sent to Vietnam almost immediately upon completing basic training. He had hoped to remain stateside, at least to start his time in the Army, but the job he wanted went to an enlisted soldier. McCloughan was a draftee.
Eventually, he said, “I got into the right frame of mind that I will serve my country. I didn’t volunteer to do it, but they’ve asked me, so that’s what I’ll do.”
McCloughan did not speak during the White House ceremony. But when Trump motioned to the former soldier’s Army buddies and asked them to stand and be recognized, McCloughan turned to them and raised his hand in a crisp salute.
As the ceremony came to a close, he and Trump embraced. Amid the applause, McCloughan pointed to several friends and family members in attendance.
The president beamed.
A blessing was offered by the attending chaplain, and the two men hugged once more. McCloughan pulled the president close and spoke into his ear. It is unclear what was said, but in response Trump looked at him and appeared to nod in affirmation.