By Eric PilgrimJuly 19, 2018
FORT KNOX, Ky. -- In September 1968, when Jim McCloughan passed by the iconic mustard yellow sign at Fort Knox that greeted all young recruits with a "Welcome to the United States Army," he was beginning an Army journey that would eventually lead him to the fighting in Vietnam.
When he returned to Fort Knox last week with his wife Chérie, that symbol of his start in the Army had long vanished, replaced by his own unmistakable symbol of what he had accomplished in Vietnam -- the Medal of Honor.
Everywhere McCloughan went around the installation, Soldiers and civilian employees approached him to shake his hand, thank him for his service and pose for photos. Some asked questions, like how he earned the highest medal the United States can bestow upon a service member, and what it meant to him to wear it.
"This [medal] doesn't belong to me," McCloughan said to one person. "It belongs to the 89 men who went into that battle, whether they came out or not. I'm just a caretaker of it."
The battle to which he referred occurred in Vietnam May 13-15, 1969, in an area near Tam Ky and Nui Yon Hill. Two American helicopters had been shot down earlier that morning. Then-Pfc. McCloughan and the others from Company C, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry of the Americal Division were ordered to rescue the helicopter crews.
When they arrived at the crash site, they faced a fierce North Vietnamese Army force that had set up an ambush. As one of the unit's two combat medics and, later, as the only medic, McCloughan charged into a hail of bullets several times over the next three days to rescue wounded Soldiers from being killed or captured, even after he sustained several injuries himself. He refused to leave the battlefield.
Spc. 5 McCloughan received the Bronze Star with "V" device Feb. 19, 1970, for his heroic actions during the battle. The medal was eventually upgraded to the Medal of Honor and awarded to him by President Donald Trump July 31, 2017.
During this recent visit to Fort Knox, McCloughan wore the medal as he spoke to first sergeants and commanders of 3rd Recruiting Brigade Wednesday, and then attended a farewell dinner that evening for the brigade commander, Col. Wayne Hertel.
On July 12, the McCloughans received a tour of the post that included stops at Godman Army Airfield and the General George Patton Museum.
One of those who greeted them at Godman was Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Chacon, a flight medic with Company C, 5th General Support Aviation Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment. She climbed into a Black Hawk medical helicopter and showed McCloughan some of the Army's latest technologies they use to save lives, while Chérie climbed into the cockpit and received a briefing on how they fly injured troops to safety.
"For me, this is an honor. I love being a medic and just meeting someone who has been through some crazy shenanigans, it's amazing," Chacon said. "We've come so far in the medical field, and I can only imagine how, with the limited supplies and knowledge base they had back then, that they were able to still save so many lives.
"I was pretty stoked when they said I was getting to meet him and show him around -- a little nervous, too," she said.
McCloughan said a big highlight for him was getting the chance to see his old barracks and reenact a photo from 50 years before that has meant so much to him over the years. In the image, he is squatting in front of his barracks during basic training, posing as he cleans his weapon.
After a tour of the museum, the staff led him down a long walkway. About halfway down, McCloughan spotted the barracks, with a placard that read "4561."
"That's it! That's the one I stayed in," he said.
The museum staff handed him an old M16 from that era to use in the photo. He took a knee. "I can't squat like that anymore," he said, laughing.
At the conclusion of the tour, he and Chérie sat down with the U.S. Army Garrison command team for some lunch at the dining facility. McCloughan bantered about college football with Col. Pat Kaune and Command Sgt. Maj. Garrick Griffin. One of them asked how why he refused to leave the battlefield, even after being repeatedly wounded.
"I'd rather be dead on the battlefield than be alive in some hospital and find out that my men died because I wasn't there," said McCloughan. "That's why I didn't get on that helicopter that first night."
McCloughan said he seizes every opportunity he gets to inspire others toward excellence and hope, whether by sharing his story, or using humor.
"My best medicine as a medic was my humor. I worked to distract Soldiers with it so I could get them on the plane, and get them started on hope. Hope is a really good thing."
Chérie looked up from her meal and smiled at her husband. "I'm so glad that this trip worked out," she said.
He nodded. "It's been amazing."