On July 31 Michiganian James McCloughan is awarded the Medal of Honor. A moment in time an old coach from South Haven says has changed his life dramatically.
“It’s been a whirlwind, but a lot of fun. It’s very surreal.”
It’s surreal because days are much different now for this Vietnam War hero. To tens of thousands of people who have been connected to McCloughan over the past 40 years he’s coach, leading 133 teams in football, wrestling, and baseball. He’s been a mentor who helped people win, not the man who has seen real war, real sacrifice, and real loss.
“Just being interviewed by you is a blessing because I should have been killed or captured about 5 times after going back to retrieve my fellow soldiers and bring them back to safety. “
His calendar is packed since being awarded the highest medal in America with speaking engagements, interviews, and honors, which he says is a major responsibility.
“I’m representing something bigger than myself, even bigger than our company. I’m representing the highest medal in the nation and to do that you have to give it honor. I’m just a caretaker of this medal for the 89 men who went into that battle with me.”
McCloughan says the 48 hours he’s being honored for is a time that’ll last with him forever. He heroically saved 10 lives after being ambushed by a larger North Vietnamese force, but painful as well because he also watched 13 others, many of those victims, die in his arms. He charged into kill zones to save the wounded — getting hit with shrapnel on two separate occasions, but nothing stopped his determination. He risked his life at least nine times to save wounded or stranded comrades. It’s a time he rarely has discussed since it happened, saying guys he’s coached with for years were surprised telling him they had no idea of his past, and the pain, he’s now being asked to talk about after keeping it hidden for so long.
“It is bringing out a lot of ghosts for me and those men who fought in that battle. One of my statements is that I can’t believe I’m getting a medal for the worst two days of my life.”
McCloughn says there is something he’s trying to change while the spotlight is shining, and that’s how we all think of Vietnam War soldiers. He says he and his fellow draftees had fathers who also fought for our country in World War II, but they were welcomed back with honor, not humiliation. It’s a time McCloughan says still hits him hard when talking about the hurt he wishes will fade away for many he fought with.
“That would be the greatest thing to happen with this medal around my neck if I can be their spokesperson and change their image to what it should be, and that is a very brave courageous person who thought about everyone’s freedom, even the Vietnamese people.”
A message McCloughan hopes to continue to spread while, as he puts it, he’s on this whirlwind of a ride, and using what he was honored with to try and make a difference.