SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah Army reservist who was injured in Afghanistan three years ago this month received one of the nation’s highest honors Thursday.
Spc. James McCloy of West Jordan received the Purple Heart, and it was presented to him by Congressman Chris Stewart, R-Utah.
McCloy went to Afghanistan in December of 2010. As a member of the Army's 744th Engineer Company based in Ogden, his job was to find explosives in the path ahead.
On March 6, 2011, the unit received information showing there was an improvised explosive device in one of the most dangerous roads in the Kunar Province in Afghanistan. McCloy and three others were sent to check it out. They found a decoy in the road, cleared it, and continued forward.
“The next thing I remember was waking up hanging from my straps in the back of my truck,” McCloy said.
They had been hit by a bomb made of 150 pounds of homemade explosives. All four were hurt.
“The blast took the front end of the vehicle from the windshield forward and sent it about 90 feet down the road,” McCloy said. “The rest of the vehicle ended up on the back end, pointing up at the sky like a rocket."
Under heavy enemy fire, McCloy helped the three other injured men in the truck get to safety, even though he was hurt himself.
"Even going to Afghanistan, I knew there was the possibility of getting hurt,” he said. “I've always been that guy that (thought), 'It'll never happen to me.'"
McCloy injured his shoulder and his knees. Two weeks after the blast, he went back out and finished his tour. He was there from December 2010 to October 2011. He was medically retired on Oct. 17, 2013.
It's been a long road back for him medically and emotionally.
“I still suffer from migraine headaches quite often,” he said. “I lose my words sometimes. Slowly but surely, the brain is getting back to normal.”
McCloy told the story of how he and his comrades were hurt at Stewart's office. He was joined by dozens of family and friends, along with military veterans, who brought McCloy and his family to Stewart’s office in a motorcycle escort.
Stewart, an Air Force pilot for 14 years, conducted the presentation.
“Thank you all for your sacrifice,” Stewart said. “Thank you all for defending the values that help make America, as Abraham Lincoln said, ‘the last best hope of man.’”
With friends and family looking on, McCloy's wife pinned the Purple Heart medal on him. The Purple Heart is the oldest military award given to U.S. soldiers. It’s an award that was first established by George Washington in 1782.
"I have said probably 10,000 times that the very best young men and young women that our nation has ever produced can be found in the United States military,” Stewart said.
McCloy said the ceremony felt like closure for him.
“It’s been a very emotional day,” McCloy said. “I didn’t think it would affect me like this. There’s been a couple of tears this morning.”
He now works for the Utah charity, Thank A Hero Foundation. The group helps soldiers and their families bond once they get home after suffering serious injuries. The organization helped him when he needed it, so now he's giving back.
“You get home and the battle is just beginning,” he said. “You get home and you’re happy, then (post-traumatic stress disorder) sets in. We’re just trying to do our part to help prevent that and just try to make life a little bit better and to help the soldiers coming home bond with their families a little bit more.”
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc