In May 1969, Jim McCloughan was a 23-year-old private serving as an Army medic in Vietnam. During the ferocious, dayslong battle of Nui Yon Hill, he repeatedly entered the kill zone to rescue wounded soldiers, despite being wounded himself. McCloughan was wounded so badly that an officer suggested he leave the field for treatment. Instead he stayed, risking his life on nine separate occasions to rescue his comrades.
Now, 48 years later, McCloughan will receive the Medal of Honor on Monday for what he did during that battle. Here & Now‘s Lisa Mullins speaks with him.
On his first day in Vietnam in 1969
“We hit an ambush the very first day, so I was really initiated right into it. I had several injuries and actually shot my first enemy soldier that day, which was real shocking for me. Hard to explain that one, but I’m sure you can understand. So, yeah, I got initiated real quickly, and we brought in medevacs, and got everybody prepared, got them on a helicopter and got them out of there. Plus, I realize now, I was in a war zone, there’s the possibility I could be killed.”
On the battle for Nui Yon Hill
“We were first told that we were gonna be a blocking force and that a track unit was gonna come over that hill, that Nui Yon Hill, and flush out the enemy. The big factor was, and our CO, which is our company commander, pointed out to the battalion commander that this was a flawed mission because no forward observers had been sent into that area to see how many enemy soldiers were actually on that hill. So, um, here we are coming into an area blindfolded, so to speak.
“The area that we were dropped in was called a hot [landing zone] … When that happens, they will not land those helicopters. We jumped out from about 10 feet up in the air so that they could get out of there quickly and not get shot down, but we did have two helicopters shot down.
“We got there in the morning the 13th [of May] and by the morning of the 15th, they had moved out because of the heavy support units that we had, they were chased out. By the second day, we were down to two medics, and then Dan Shea, who was the other medic — he was the medic for first platoon, I was the medic for second platoon — on about his fourth of fifth trip out he was mortally wounded, and so I brought him in and now I knew I was the only medic left. I had refused the day before, by the way, to get on a helicopter. I refused to get on because I knew that they were gonna need me. I got close enough to hell to see, like, lava coming down off that of that hill from a distance, that’s how many people were on that hill. And, so now I knew when Dan had been killed that now I had made the right decision to stay because now I was the only medic left to do that job.”
On sustaining multiple injuries during the battle but continuing to aid others
“Well, my father had a factor in this and athletics had a factor in this. My father told me if I had a job to do, don’t do it halfway, and make sure you do it until the end, until it’s completed. The other factor would be the athletics where, not only was it great that I was in good physical shape, but the mental discipline that I learned from those sports, I was allowed to focus and knew how to focus on what I had to do. Was I scared? Sure, I mean, I’m in a situation where I could die at any moment. But you had to keep your mind on what you were doing and evaluate the situation, how the wounds were, and then treat them and get them to safety as soon as possible.”
On losing Dan Shea, the only other medic in the unit, and reflecting on his death
“All veterans wonder, ‘Why did they have to die and I didn’t?’ And, of course, as Ronald Reagan had said many years ago, that they really lost two lives. They lost the one that they were leading at the time and the one that they never were able to have. Just a brief moment it’s like, ‘Oh wow, I wonder what their mom and dad is gonna, how they’re gonna feel when they find out.’ But that’s just a brief thought, and then it’s back to focusing on, ‘I need to get him in, I don’t need to be killed, too, I’m the only medic left so I better get him in.'”