Why have so many Medals of Honor been awarded to the Irish? ‘We’ve been fighting for years and years’

Editor’s note: a version of this story first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times on March 15, 2019.

TAMPA — James Bradley McCloughan watched as then-President Donald Trump placed the Medal of Honor around his father’s neck, commemorating a series of selfless, heroic acts that saved the lives of fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War,

As the president read the citation during the July 2017 ceremony, the son — a Michigan state policeman — heard for the first time the story of his father’s bravery under fire.

“It’s something that you just don’t bring up for two reasons,” medal recipient James Charles McCloughan explained in an interview March 14, 2019. “No. 1, you don’t want to go there. You’ve been through it. Once is enough.

“No. 2, people might not believe you if you told them, anyway.”

McCloughan, 72, and fellow Medal of Honor recipient Robert O’Malley, 75, were guests of honor at the March 14, 2019, opening of the Irish Veterans Congressional Medal of Honor exhibit at the Tampa History Center downtown.

Sponsored by Irish Veterans Post 2, the exhibit honors the contributions of the Irish and Irish-Americans to the nation’s defense. It was created in conjunction with the Congressional Medal of Honor Convention that came to Tampa Oct. 22-29 2019.

The exhibit also features the Medal of Honor awarded to Ireland-born Navy sailor Michael Gibbons for his actions May 11, 1898, at the Battle of Cienfuegos during the Spanish-American War. Gibbons took part in a dangerous mission to cut underwater communications cables linking the coastal Cuban city to the Spanish military command.

Of the 3,507 Medals of Honor awarded by the United States, some 2,018 have gone to Irish-Americans, according to research cited by Patrick McDermot of Irish Veterans Post 2, created in Tampa in 2017. The research was funded by the Irish government; the Congressional Medal of Honor Society said it had no way to confirm it.

To help explain why the Irish account for more than their share, McCloughan turned to history.

“If you go back to the culture of the Irish you know we’ve been fighting each other and fighting the Scottish and so on and so forth for years and years and years,” he said.

His own family’s military history dates to the Picts, who lived in Scotland during the early Medieval period.

“You learn to stick up for your rights and the rights of others,” said McCloughan, of Michigan, who taught high school sociology and psychology after leaving the military.

“When you go into the service, maybe you are thinking about serving your country but I’m going to tell you what once you get there you just worried about surviving and then helping as many of your brothers survive as possible.”

Heritage, then, may help explain McCloughan’s own extraordinary actions as an Army private first class during the Vietnam War nearly half a century ago.

Over the course of a hellish 48 hours in May 1969, McCloughan rushed into a sea of bullets, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars to rescue his fellow soldiers and fight off the enemy.

He was a combat medic with Company C, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 196th Light Infantry Brigade. He was wounded three times during the battle and was credited with saving the lives of 10 Americans from enemy fire and patching up dozens more.

Surrounded by superior forces and running out of supplies, McCloughan volunteered to hold a blinking strobe light in an open area to help guide in a nighttime resupply drop, exposing himself to enemy fire.

He is also credited with using a grenade to take out an enemy rocket-propelled grenade position, fighting and killing enemy soldiers, treating a number of casualties, keeping two critically wounded comrades alive through the night, and getting the wounded and dead ready to be evacuated at daylight.

Fellow honoree O’Malley received the Medal of Honor for his actions as a Marine corporal in 1965, when he ran cross an open rice paddy in South Vietnam and charged an enemy trench. Wounded three times, he gathered up his battered and wounded squad, led them to a helicopter to be flown out, and remained on the ground, and used gunfire to keep the enemy covered until all the wounded could board their helicopters.

That year, O’Malley became the first Marine awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.

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