Specialist Five James McCloughan’s Medal of Honor citation, like all Medal of Honor citations, will drop your jaw to the floor. A 23 year old combat medic in the middle of Vietnam, he braved heavy fire to move an injured casualty to safety and was wounded by shrapnel before saving two more. He went on to run directly into fire four more times to extract wounded men, treating wounds and getting everyone prepped for evac. Despite his wounds, he refused to evacuate as he was one of two medics on the ground–the other of which would be killed and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Wounded again by small arms fire and more shrapnel, he would expose himself to save more injured soldiers, take out an enemy RPG position–the list goes on and on. You can read his citation here, at the bottom half where the military aide comes forward to read it. His actions undoubtedly speak for themselves.
When it comes to Medal of Honor recipients, you usually hear a couple sides of the story: What did they do on the day(s) when they earned our nation’s highest military honor? What is the soldier like when the uniform comes off and he goes back home?
I had the distinct honor of speaking to Mr. McCloughan the other day, and there was another story that I was fascinated to hear. What was the man like as a soldier? Or more specifically, as a combat medic?
I would soon find that his heroism and dedication to the men in his company did not start on May 13th, 1969. He strove to provide the highest level of care possible for his guys, day in and day out.
“It was an everyday process,” he said, “I’d be working on boils, impetigo, rashes, and maybe some rat bites and things like that.” He set up a shipment to receive one syringe a day that allowed him to fight off rabies in one patient, “every day for 14 days.” He would describe the constant care required for sprains and strains, and the efforts to keep everyone adequately hydrated. He ensured people were changing their socks and clothes when they could. He even carried extra bottles of water, on top of his glass bottles of saline solution and other medical supplies. Because of this, he never had a case of heat stroke–he’d catch the signs quickly and act accordingly.
McCloughan’s discipline kept a lot of men in the fight that would have otherwise faced serious injury from preventable injuries. For example, “impetigo” is a bacterial infection that can be both incredibly itchy and painful. In a sterile, peaceful environment it can be easily treated, but in the middle of the jungle in Vietnam things are more difficult. It can spread if it goes untreated, especially if it gets scratched. In Vietnam, some would get this infection from something as small as a cut from elephant grass (why many soldiers would wear long sleeves, despite the blistering heat). McCloughan would hear about medics letting it go untreated, and it even taking soldiers out of the fight. As the sores grew and they started to puss, he would do the same routine 2 to 3 times a day: clean it with water, treat with nitrofurazone ointment, cover with gauze and wrap it. Over and over. Soldiers from other platoons would come to him because they knew that his diligence would mean their wounds could be manageable within days, instead of festering and becoming a real problem.
Not only would evacuating someone greatly endanger the company, as they’d have to secure an LZ and potentially fight off enemy troops while doing so, but it also simply took more guns out of the fight. During the battle where he saved so many lives, they began with 89 men and he would treat around 60-70 of them. They would need all the help they could get.
Not only was he going above and beyond in terms of what he was trained to do, he innovated several new methods as well. Back then, it was not standard for the average infantryman in his platoon to carry medical supplies on their own, but McCloughan had the soldiers carry two rolls of gauze on them each. It made sense; that way everyone had some medical supplies on them and he wouldn’t have to carry an unrealistic amount of extra supplies that would slow him down. It’s difficult to say whether or not our modern day standards came from him specifically, but there is no doubt that he was an innovator and made himself adaptable to the needs that arose.
At 23 years old, it seems like he was a big brother to a lot of the young men fighting there: “I was older than our company commander, actually.” Speaking to him, you could tell his dedication to these guys far transcended his required duty and written standards. They were his family, and he was charged with their health and welfare, be it combat injuries, non-combat care, or even psychological issues. I asked him about PTSD and “When I was there, we didn’t even have that term,” but he would still give them his best efforts at counseling on the ground, or even just “change their morale by giving them a joke–whatever it was that you could give.”
And that pretty much sums up Specialist Five James McCloughan’s service during his time in Vietnam. He gave whatever it was that he could give, in every sense of the phrase.
So when they arrived at the battle at Tam Kỳ and Nui Yon Hill, they were in trouble. McCloughan describes seeing the movement on the hill before them “like lava,” as enemy troops swarmed their position. They needed every gun in the fight to make it out alive–not only did his heroism during those days save multiple lives, but McCloughan’s steadfast dedication to the welfare of his men before the battle gave them a stronger fighting force, and likely saved even more lives in the long run.
Featured image: center and bottom photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, left and right photos courtesy of James McCloughan. Compilation by the author.