James McGough was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1951. He was raised along with his four siblings on a farm in Webster County. James was especially fond of his cattle and pigs, and was proud to show his favorites in 4H. He also developed a love of woodworking early on, and made a toboggan that won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair. Jim was a hard worker who always wanted to do his best in all he did, and he had a deep sense of responsibility and pride. At the young age of 17, Jim graduated from high school, and went on to attend Iowa State University.
It was during Jim’s time at Iowa State that he met his future wife, Sherry. Jim was 18, and Sherry was only 14, but they had a connection from the beginning. Jim was only allowed to spend time with Sherry when they had a family chaperone, but that didn’t keep them apart. Jim spent many family dinners in Sherry’s house, and he even built her parents some front steps for their home. Sherry was never far from his mind, even when he was at Iowa State.
Jim started in the Aerospace Engineering program, and then transferred to Business. After a year and a half at Iowa State, however, Jim decided to withdraw from college and serve our country by enlisting in the army. He made the most of his experience in the military and never complained, even during boot camp. He gained a reputation as an excellent marksman. Jim’s initial placement with the U.S. Army was a relatively safe one – he was tasked with writing up accommodation forms and reports while on location in Vietnam. Jim’s sense of duty and responsibility won out, though, and he soon asked to be placed in the front lines so that he could be in the action and serve his country. He did this for six months or so, often walking point on missions. He wore his helmet proudly, as he had hand-painted the name of his girlfriend “Sherry” across the side.
On February 8th, 1971, Jim got into an argument with his Lieutenant. Jim thought that day’s mission was too dangerous. He didn’t win that argument, though, and his group set out, although not with Jim on point. They walked into an ambush. The Lieutenant was killed immediately, along with the soldier on point. Jim was hit with a Chinese-made grenade that sprayed shrapnel directly into his legs and feet. Their medic was injured as well. It is a testament to Jim’s character that even with his serious injuries he dragged himself across the ground to the medic to help form a plan to aid the others.
War correspondent and Des Moines Register journalist Gordon Gammack served alongside Jim in Vietnam. Gordon said, “He seemed calm, unafraid, and ready to do whatever he was called upon to do as a fighting man. There was something about him that made him seem, to me, one of the finest soldiers I’d ever met.”
Jim was eventually evacuated out of the jungle with the body of a dead sergeant straddled across him on the sling that raised him into the belly of the helicopter. Jim was moved to Okinawa, Japan to recover from his injuries. He had surgery to remove all the shrapnel, and had a blood transfusion in the process. He was bedridden for a month and a half, and then he was sent back to the US. He finished out his 18 months of service at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Jim finally got to marry his sweetheart Sherry in June 1972, just two weeks after she graduated high school. They made a home first in Fort Dodge, and later moved to Des Moines. During this time they were graced with two daughters, Leigh and Janelle. James was an amazing father and husband, and was considered a family man all around. Whether it was giving his daughters their first baths, taking care of his aging mother, taking his daughters to the dentist, or providing a Thanksgiving dinner, he always embraced life with pride and a smile. His wife, Sherry, believes that his chivalrous mannerisms came from the way he was raised. As a man of many talents, he used his skills from his farming upbringing and from the army to go through a series of jobs, first in construction, then real estate, and finally, as a salesman.
Even though he was now safe at home, there were still signs that the war lingered in his thoughts. To wake him up, his daughters knew to whisper in his ear rather than shake him awake, after learning he would try to grab an imaginary rifle. He never made it all the way through the movie Platoon without leaving the room. But mostly, he was a selfless man with a life as normal as a combat veteran’s could be.
Jim donated blood faithfully until he received a letter from the American Red Cross in the 1990s revealing that he was stricken with hepatitis C. After visiting his doctor, he did some research and eventually was able to pinpoint that the Hepatitis C was due to the blood transfusion he received in Okinawa. Luckily, the virus hadn’t bothered him at all up to that time and Jim stayed in good health for a while before taking a turn for the worse. Then the battle began as Jim fought diverticulitis, an aortic aneurysm, and a mass on his liver. Jim even tried a chemo-like treatment for Hepatitis C at Mayo, but it wasn’t successful. Jim began to think of all the things he wanted to do before the end of his life, and graduating college was high on his list. With the help of his former college roommate, Verne Hawkins, Jim enrolled back at Iowa State, and this time he earned his degree in Business, which he completed in 15 short months.
In January of 2014, James died at the age of 62, surrounded by his family at home. His dying wish was to have his name added to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. His daughter took it upon herself to go about this lengthy process. She was successful, and her father was the first Iowan since 1994 to be added to the memorial.
His legacy continues at Iowa State, both in Gold Star Hall, where his name was engraved this fall, and through his wife, Sherry, who continues to lecture in Iowa State’s English Department. She wrote a book, “Now Comes the Hard Part,” about her husband from the perspective of a grieving spouse and caregiver