ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the middle of this tumultuous day at the White House, there was a pause to honor the bravery of an American soldier. In the East Room, President Trump presented the Medal of Honor to James McCloughan almost 50 years after he saved the lives of 10 fellow soldiers during a fierce battle in Vietnam. Seven of those men were there with McCloughan for the ceremony.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Specialist 5 McCloughan, we honor you. We salute you. And with God as your witness, we thank you for what you did for all of us.
SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here. And Tom, tell us about James McCloughan and what he was recognized for today.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Ari, let me set the scene. It's May of '69. The soldiers came in by Huey helicopters in several waves to this area south of the coastal city of Da Nang. And two of the helicopters immediately crash because of enemy fire. So almost immediately, Jim McCloughan had to go to work. So he ran out and picked up a guy who injured his knee rolling from the helicopter. Everyone's firing at them. And he picked this guy up. This was Bill Arnold. And Arnold told me McCloughan said, get ready for a bumpy ride. Now, they're all under fire. And McCloughan said he would joke with the guys to prevent them from going into shock. So that was the first thing he did.
Now, over the next few days, he was able to save nine more soldiers. At one point, they were taking enemy fire from three sides. And McCloughan was wounded himself by shrapnel from an RPG. He refused an order to leave the battlefield from his lieutenant. And he just kept going out. He said, I'd rather die than know one of my guys died because a medic didn't show up.
SHAPIRO: Wow. So you talked with some of those men who were saved by McCloughan. Tell us more about the stories they told you today.
BOWMAN: Well, right. I spoke to a few of them, and they were just astounded at his bravery, how he could keep going out time after time again under this incredible fire from machine guns and RPGs, mortars - and again, three days of this, fighting night and day. And they said they didn't get help from American - they did get help from American air power. It was a C-130 with Gatling guns called a Spooky. They said if it weren't for that, they would have all been killed. Here's Mike Martino, who was there that day.
MIKE MARTINO: He shouldn't be alive. There's no way. He was wounded again there. He should not be alive. I mean it's absolutely ridiculous. Actually, we all looked at each other and say none of us should be alive.
SHAPIRO: Wow. These are events that took place almost 50 years ago. What took so long for this recognition?
BOWMAN: Well, initially he was awarded a Bronze Star with a V device for a valor device because apparently his command didn't think he deserved a higher medal. But over the past decade or so, his uncle, Michigan lawmakers and soldiers wrote letters in his behalf saying he deserves a lot more than a Bronze Star. So they upgraded the medal that he received that day, but it took quite some time.
SHAPIRO: Was there a moment that stood out to you from the White House ceremony today?
BOWMAN: Well, his eyes got a bit misty, you know? And all his comrades were there, including the few of the guys I spoke with. They all stood up, and one of them saluted him. And I think it's important for everyone to know the kind of bravery it takes to be awarded a Medal of Honor. Sixty percent of those who receive the Medal of Honor receive it posthumously. So...
SHAPIRO: Killed in action.
BOWMAN: Killed in action - so it was really - it's a powerful ceremony.
SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks for sharing the story with us.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.