Jim McCloughan ’68 often says the best four years of his life was his time at Olivet College. In the spring of 1969, he couldn’t have imagined that those four years would prepare him for the worst two days of his life.
Forty-eight years later, on July 31, 2017, the former Army medic will be presented the Congressional Medal of Honor for his distinguished actions above and beyond the call of duty during the Vietnam War.
As a private first class combat medic, McCloughan served with Company C, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 196th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division. From May 13 to 15, 1969, McCloughan repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of nine of his comrades and one Vietnamese interpreter. He refused evacuation to remain with his unit, even after being wounded himself on three separate occasions by shrapnel and small arms fire. During the 48-hour ordeal, McCloughan did not eat or sleep, he conserved his water in order to treat the wounded, and he engaged in enemy battle.
It was the strong foundation of teamwork that McCloughan developed as an athlete in high school and at Olivet College that helped him through the unbelievable ordeal. “I could say playing football and wrestling saved my life,” McCloughan said. “I had sound mentoring and was pushed to do my best and always give it my all by my coaches. The physical discipline was not the key, the mental discipline was. I knew what it was like, on a different level, to face combat and prepare to win from playing sports. I transferred it to saving lives.”
From Bangor to Olivet
Growing up in Bangor, a small town not far from South Haven, McCloughan and his two brothers attended a one-room schoolhouse. In later years, the McCloughan brothers attended Bangor Public Schools. In high school, McCloughan excelled in athletics, earning 11 varsity letters on the football, baseball, basketball and track and field teams. He was also in the spotlight on the stage, cast as the lead in four musical productions.
McCloughan assumed after high school he’d go to work; he wasn’t thinking about college. However, when a local reverend was named a professor at Olivet College, McCloughan came for a visit, and everything changed. That day, OC’s football team was practicing when McCloughan walked by. It was love at first sight.
“I often say that the best four years of my life were the ones I spent at Olivet College,” McCloughan said. “The relationships I formed there are some of the most meaningful and important to me. I had a great time earning an education and competing in athletics, and also became a real people person.”
With classes starting in two weeks, McCloughan hastily enrolled, moved onto campus and began practicing with the team. He enjoyed every second of it and, over the next four years, he excelled as a student-athlete. McCloughan was a member of the 1967 championship football team, joined OC’s first-ever wrestling team, and played baseball. He majored in sociology and minored in coaching, and managed to find time to form Tevilo Four, a barbershop-style quartette that competed across the state.
From Olivet to Vietnam
Even before McCloughan graduated in the spring of 1968, he had a teaching and coaching position waiting for him at South Haven High School. The future looked picture perfect. Then, in June, an official government letter arrived directing him to report for a physical. Not thinking much of it, McCloughan reported as directed, assuming it was just routine and nothing would come of it.
Two months later, on August 29, 1968, McCloughan was inducted into the Army. He spent the next several months in basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky before completing his medic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. In March 1969, McCloughan’s boots hit the ground in Vietnam, just months before President Richard Nixon would begin the de-escalation of American troops.
“Of course this was a very trying time. I saw so many things that a normal person never will or should have to,” McCloughan admitted. “I was part of a battalion of 89 men, but we had to land in what’s called a ‘Hot LZ’ and that’s when you’re under assault while in the air. Our helicopters couldn’t land because of it and we had to jump from about 10 feet onto the ground. Injuries and casualties from the landing and heat started before we even engaged in combat.”
From Boy to Man
Over a 48-hour period in May 1969, McCloughan displayed bravery and self-sacrifice while fighting enemy numbers in the thousands. With complete disregard for his own life or personal safety, he repeatedly went into crossfire to extract injured soldiers who were unable to move to safety. Even after being wounded himself, McCloughan refused to leave his men; he knew he was the only surviving medic and had a responsibility to his men.
In the middle of a combat zone with limited supplies, McCloughan again sacrificed. Many of the men suffered horrific internal injuries that required hydration. McCloughan used his own water to treat the wounds. Only after the life threatening wounds of the men were treated did McCloughan tend to his own injuries.
His bravery didn’t stop there. When supplies ran low, McCloughan volunteered to hold a blinking light in an open area as a marker for a nighttime supply drop, all the while bullets whizzed around him and an RPG flew overhead. The next morning, he used a grenade to knock out the RPG position.
“At one point, I was in a trench line treating a badly wounded man with the enemy attack looming extremely near and it dawned on me that it had been since I was a young boy that I had told my father I loved him. I knew he loved me and he knew I loved him, but it just wasn’t something men said to one another,” McCloughan reflected. “In that moment of doubt I realized that it wasn’t up to me if I lived or died there – it was up to God, my creator. I prayed to God to take me home and allow me to tell my father that I loved him and bargained that if he did that for me I would be the best man, son, husband, father, coach and teacher that I could be.”
When evacuation forces finally arrived, only 32 of the 89 original men were standing, McCloughan was one of them. Another 30-some were badly wounded, 12 were confirmed dead and one was missing in action.
For the 89 Men Who Served
There was no question back in 1969 that McCloughan exhibited outstanding sacrifice. He was awarded numerous medals, including two Purple Heart medals and two Bronze Star medals with a “V” to signify valor. He was also nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross (the second highest military decoration), but as a private first class, he was instead awarded the Bronze Star. That was good enough for McCloughan. He was just happy to be alive.
McCloughan returned to South Haven High School and picked up where he left off, teaching and coaching. And for 40 years, he never forgot that promise he made to God in the middle of the war torn rice paddy to always do his best.
McCloughan’s uncle believed he should have been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He began reaching out to the Army and other government officials to raise awareness of McCloughan’s actions. When the nomination reached former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, instead of the Distinguished Service Cross, he recommended McCloughan for the Congressional Medal of Honor. However, regulations state that it must be awarded within five years of action. It took an act of Congress, spearheaded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Sen. Gary Peters, and Rep. Fred Upton and signed by former President Barack Obama, for McCloughan to be eligible for the honor.
“I often am troubled that I couldn’t save them all,” McCloughan said. “But I know that I did my absolute best and gave it my all, like it’s important to do with everything in life. I can look myself in the mirror and say that, and I know that I had tremendous support from my men. I didn’t do this alone and I’m not a hero. This is not a Jim McCloughan award. I will receive the Medal of Honor on behalf of all 89 of us.”
McCloughan continues to celebrate life today, both his own and those of the men he saved. He’s had the opportunity to reconnect with several of the soldiers he rescued during battle as well as their families. It makes it all worth witnessing the traumatic events of war.
“Many people ask me if I could go back and redo my life would I go to war again.” McCloughan said. “I certainly would. Not because I’m being awarded for my service, but because if I hadn’t gone to war I would not have met some of the bravest, most courageous and loving individuals that I am fortunate to have in my life today. In fact, it feels a little odd to be awarded for the worst 48 hours of my life. This whole experience is surreal. I just want to say how thankful I am for the men and women who continue to fight for our freedom, and also the police officers and fire fighters who protect Americans every day.”
McCloughan and his wife, Cherie, have three children, one stepdaughter and six grandchildren. They also consider their two beloved standard poodles to be part of the family. Enjoying life surrounded by family, and an occasional round of golf, is all McCloughan needs today.
Congressional Medal of Honor Presentation
McCloughan will be presented the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Donald Trump on July 31, 2017. Follow McCloughan’s journey at Army.mil.
Distinguished Alumni Award
McCloughan will be awarded the Olivet College Distinguished Alumni Award on September 29, as part of Homecoming Weekend. Event registration opening soon.