A Medal Of Honor For Former Army Medic Jim McCloughan

Jul 31, 2017
Originally published on August 3, 2017 7:36 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today - this afternoon at the White House, President Trump awards the Medal of Honor to United States Army medic, who is receiving the honor almost 50 years after his actions during the Vietnam War.

JIM MCCLOUGHAN: I'd rather die on the battlefield than have heard later on that one of my men didn't make it because their medic was not there.

INSKEEP: John McCloughan ran toward enemy fire numerous times over the course of three days to save fellow soldiers, even though he himself was wounded. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Soldiers from Charlie Company were running for their lives, tripping over themselves in a rice paddy south of the coastal city of Da Nang. Heavy fire was coming from the tree line behind them - AK-47s, machine guns.

MCCLOUGHAN: It was not a good day, OK? You could just hear the bullets popping.

BOWMAN: Bill Arnold was one of the soldiers running that May morning in 1969. He was 20 years old, and he couldn't keep up. Hours before, he injured his knee rolling off a helicopter. His run was reduced to a limp and then to a crawl. Finally, he collapsed.

BILL ARNOLD: You're almost in a haze or a blur because of your vision. And you see a guy heading toward you. Basically, first, you want to say, what the hell's wrong with this guy? (Laughter) He's heading towards the enemy. I'm trying to get out of there.

BOWMAN: It was Jim McCloughan, who, a few weeks earlier, turned 23. He arrived in Vietnam in March, a college athlete from Michigan. He was known as Doc - easygoing with a ready joke.

ARNOLD: He threw me up over his shoulder. And he said, get ready for a bumpy ride. And we were under fire. He was running. He done above and beyond what he needed to do.

BOWMAN: That was the first of McCloughan's heroic actions. Over the next two days, he'd be credited with saving nine more soldiers.

MIKE MARTINO: It's a hundred degree heat or more - open rice paddy - bullets are bouncing around, kicking up dirt around us.

BOWMAN: It was Mike Martino's first heavy firefight. The soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, had been sent to help clear North Vietnamese soldiers from the area - push them into the hills. Before long, it was Charlie Company being pushed from three sides by a constant barrage. Martino remembers it got so desperate that word started spreading - save the last bullet for yourself.

MARTINO: We are behind rice paddy dikes maybe a foot to 18 inches high. They're providing no protection whatsoever.

BOWMAN: Throughout that first day and night, Doc McCloughan kept going out to help the wounded.

JOE MIDDENDORF: There was no - no quit in that man - none whatsoever.

BOWMAN: Joe Middendorf was patched up by McCloughan after he was hit by shrapnel from an RPG.

MIDDENDORF: Oh, he kept crawling out into the battle zone. And they were so close to us, you could even hear them talking.

BOWMAN: And at one point during the second night, McCloughan deliberately put himself at risk again. He attached a strobe light to his helmet so a helicopter could pinpoint where to drop supplies. Again, Mike Martino.

MARTINO: He shouldn't be alive - there's no way. He was wounded again there. He should not be alive. I mean, it's absolutely ridiculous. Actually, we all look at each other and say, none of us should be alive.

BOWMAN: It was on that second night a bullet tore into Kent Nielsen's shoulder.

KENT NIELSEN: And I just spun around in place.

BOWMAN: Doc McCloughan placed gauze on his wounds, all while under fire.

NIELSEN: He literally picked me up and carried me, which is - I'm not that much smaller than he is. (Laughter) So I'm impressed.

BOWMAN: Nielsen was resting on his side at sunset along with the other wounded. He was drifting in and out of consciousness, listening to mortars explode, bullets crack overhead, and North Vietnamese crunch through the nearby brush.

NIELSEN: During the night, there were several times I thought I was toast. I thought I was going to be - that was - I definitely was beginning to think that this was going to be overrun, and we were going to be made into mincemeat.

BOWMAN: Nielsen and the others say it was only the arrival of American air power that saved them, prevented them from being annihilated. Fire from a spooky gunship finally pushed back the enemy troops. When it was over, there were 12 dead from Charlie Company and some three dozen wounded.

Doc McCloughan received a Bronze Star with Valor device for his heroics on that first day. The other two days were not taken into account. But over the past decade, McCloughan's uncle and his fellow soldiers wrote letters on his behalf to upgrade the award - an effort also taken up by Michigan lawmakers. And finally, after long consideration, it was endorsed by the Army. Bill Arnold says the Medal of Honor is long overdue.

ARNOLD: There is nobody that I can think more honorable, more deserving of this award than Doc.

BOWMAN: For his part, Doc McCloughan sees himself as more a caretaker of the medal. He says it's really an award for all 89 soldiers who lived and died during the battle. It was a team, he says, with each soldier playing a critical part.

MCCLOUGHAN: And I've never known it any stronger than I knew after that battle how important each man was to the other.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the introduction to this report, Medal of Honor recipient Jim McCloughan is incorrectly identified as John McCloughan. ]

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