CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Dozens of people waited for hours Wednesday night to give a hero’s welcome to a Medal of Honor recipient returning home to West Michigan.
Retired U.S. Army Spc. 5 James McCloughan, 71, of South Haven was surprised by a row of American flags, salutes, applause, cheers and whistles as he arrived at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
“Wow! You stayed up all night here?” a smiling McCloughan said to the group lining the hall at the airport before offering a salute in return.
“I really didn’t have a clue of this,” he added, speaking to 24 Hour News 8. “I’m very gracious, very gracious and humbled.”
He said the only clue he had that something might be up was that his wife — who knew about the surprise welcome — started fixing her lipstick, which he thought was odd because they were headed home.
McCloughan’s flight from Washington, D.C. was delayed for more than four hours because of weather and he didn’t arrive in Grand Rapids until about 11:30 p.m. — but dozens of supporters didn’t mind waiting. One of them, Steve Tokarski, told 24 Hour News 8 he wanted to “honor a true American hero.”
“This is a gentleman who risked his life, very specifically risked his life, to save his fellow soldiers,” he said.
“This person for several days did stuff I cannot imagine doing,” added American Legion member William Geresy. “He saved a great many lives. Even while seriously wounded, he wouldn’t quit his job.”
At the White House Monday, President Donald Trump presented McCloughan with the Medal of Honor for saving more than 10 lives in Vietnam in May 1969.
McCloughan was wounded three times while his company took heavy fire for two days at the Battle of Nui Yon Hill, but when told to take the next helicopter out, he refused. He was the only medic left and he didn’t want to leave the soldiers he knew would need him.
McCloughan told 24 Hour News 8 after the ceremony that he will strive to be a “caretaker” of the symbol for the men with whom he served.
McCloughan told the group at the airport a little about his trip to Washington, saying he had been treated “so kindly.” He added that Trump was “very gracious” and invited him and his family into the Oval Office. McCloughan, who is not very tall, noted he met the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who stands at 5-foot-11, and joked that she made him feel even shorter.
He said days of events, roundtables with members of his platoon and speeches by high-ranking officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, “took me back through the battle.”
“You can well imagine that there are some ghosts that go along with something as wonderful as this. And the Lord has helped us through that,” he said.
He also thanked everyone who has served and is serving in the military.
“Those who are in uniform … listen, we’re proud of you, we’re thankful for you, and we seem to have in the United States of America a brand new group of people that step up as we go along the way and fight for freedom and for liberty and a chance to get off of a plane at 11 o’clock at night and have a great crowd here waiting for us,” he said.
He urged those returning home from war not to be afraid to see a professional if they need help. He said it took him until 2011 to talk to someone about his experiences in war and recognized his own counselor, Brian Gripentrog.
“I saved lives in Vietnam and he’s saving many lives now,” he said.
McCloughan never got a big welcome when he returned home nearly 50 years ago. The Vietnam War was controversial and veterans rarely received recognition. Organizers of Wednesday’s event aimed to fix that — and it seems they succeeded.
“This is a welcome home like none I’ve ever had,” McCloughan told 24 Hour News 8.
He said the showing of support reminded him of his “theme” that the Medal of Honor is “all about love.”
“Here you are, so late at night, giving us love coming in, so thanks for wrapping your arms around us,” he said.
He said he is working to be a voice for fellow Vietnam vets.
“One of my goals is to make sure that they understand who you are,” he said. “That they understand that you, just like your fathers, came home, got a job, raised a family, built a house.”
He said he and his wife were happy to be going home to South Haven, where he is well known as a longtime teacher and coach, and get back to their two dogs.
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