This Memorial Day, Americans should take a moment to reflect on those serving in the military that made the ultimate sacrifice.  Left behind are the families of the fallen who must cope with the loss of their loved one.

“The Last Full Measure,” written and directed by Todd Robinson, is a movie avail on home entertainment and streaming.  It is a true story with very few liberties taken and is based on the courageous acts of Vietnam War hero William H. Pitsenbarger, a US Air Force Pararescuer who saved over sixty men. The list of star power is incredible, a who’s who.  The film starred Ed Harris, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Peter Fonda, Sebastian Stan, Diane Ladd, and Samuel Jackson. 

When others were escaping from the Viet Cong attacks, Pitsenbarger actually ran into fire to save the men of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.  Both the men he saved and his parents felt he deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor.  They fought valiantly for William to get the honor before his father died of terminal cancer.  Todd Robinson noted, “There was a young man named Parker Hayes that was working for the Air Force and given the task of interviewing those who were saved by Pitsenbarger. He was the first guy to go in and actually interview these veterans. And it was the first time they had ever told the story of Operation Abilene. When I met Parker, he gave me that list of people and said, ‘Go forth and interview these people.’ That day still remains a powerful trauma in their lives. A lot of the dialogue and the characters, while some are amalgams, are certainly drawn directly from our personal experiences in meeting these men.”

Besides Hayes, there were others responsible for making sure Pitsenbarger received the Medal.  “General Depuy was the commander responsible for Operation Abilene. He took responsibility for that day.  The Senator in the movie is a combination of Depuy and former Majority Leader John Boehner. They both worked hard to get the medal for Pitsenbarger.  Boehner convinced then President Clinton to award the Medal.  It was a bipartisan effort.”

Many might be surprised that Peter Fonda starred in a movie about Vietnam veterans. Robinson commented, “All those who starred in the movie wanted to support this movie because they wanted to pay tribute to those they knew who went and fought there, some who did not come back and others who forever were changed.  This was Peter’s last movie before he died.  He did not have the same attitude as his sister, Jane Fonda. He wanted to be a part of something that is about something.”

Unlike other wars, Vietnam veterans were mistreated by their fellow Americans with no fault of their own.  Instead of being considered heroes, they were thought of as pariahs, spit upon and called baby killers. Robinson said, “The scene in the movie where Sam Jackson tells what happened at a bar is true.  He was called a baby killer and did pull his shirt off showing all the scars he had. His character, Billy Takoda, was actually someone named Marty Crowe.  He was haunted by mistakenly miscalculating gunfire that put friendly fire on his guys. We as citizens should take responsibility for those who came back.  I want people to see the Vietnam vet as human and still hurting emotionally.”

On April 11th, 1966 a pararescue helicopter responded to a call to evacuate US casualties 35 miles south of Saigon Vietnam. Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to take a hoist down more than one hundred feet through the jungle.  While on the ground he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, helped them to evacuate, and refused evacuation, instead helping more wounded soldiers to safety.  After the Viet Cong launched an overwhelming assault the evacuation was terminated.  Pitsenbarger, instead of deciding to be rescued earlier, stayed with the soldiers, and even took up arms to fight. With the battle raging on he continuously exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, exposing himself to gunfire, while pulling them out of the line of fire. Eventually, the Vietnamese overran the perimeter, and killed Pitsenbarger. 

Shortly after his death he was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor.  But the bureaucracy got in the way, and instead in 1966 awarded him the Air Force Cross.  Because those he rescued and his family felt that Pitsenbarger deserved the highest honor they kept petitioning. Eventually, thirty-four years later, in December 2000, he posthumously received the medal.  

Robinson noted, “I was touched by what his father said.  He talked about how he never got to see his son fall in love and have a child of his own. I reflected on my own son and realized I could not face the world if I lost my son. His mother said, ‘If not my son’s life, then whose?’  Those he saved were on a mission to get him the Medal before his father passed.  Pitzsenbarger saved the men in 1966 and saved their soul in 2000 because he gave them a sense of purpose. If they did not live their lives to the fullest then his paying the ultimate sacrifice would be meaningless.”

Furthermore, he stated, “Medals are important because it makes people focus on the action and not the achievement like an Academy Award.  It is to make sure that the action is not forgotten.  The power of the medal is but a prism on the action and on the behavior during stress.  The Medal tells a story, a narrative that explains what was done and on what terms.”

On this Memorial Day people should understand the sacrifices those serving have made. Robinson explained, “the Pararescuers’ motto, ‘These things we do so that others may live.’ They were there to save lives, not take lives.  They recognized service is greater than self.” Americans should reflect on a quote from the movie, “Sacrifices that those who fell will never be forgotten,” nor should their families who also sacrificed.



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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.