"The Last Full Measure" Reminds Us of the Meaning of Life

Love and Valor Change the World, One Life at a Time

Operation Abilene, launched on Easter Sunday, April 10th, 1966, was one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Sgt. James W. “Jim” Robinson Jr.’s Company C, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, was hacking its way through dense jungle east of Saigon when they walked into an ambush, and all hell broke loose.

Airmen First Class William Hart “Bill” Pitsenbarger, a pararescue medic, was off duty on Monday, April 11th, when the call came for help. Pitsenbarger volunteered to go out in the rescue helicopter, and upon arrival at the site, rode the hoist more than 100 feet down to direct the rescue effort. Standard procedure called for him to tend to the immediate needs of the wounded, get them hoisted up and evacuated, and then pull out. But with the men taking heavy fire and the wounded still accumulating on the ground after several pickups, Pitsenbarger continued to wave the helicopter off. When evacuations had to be called off, he made stretchers out of saplings and splints from vines and branches, then collected weapons and ammunition from the dead and took up arms with the besieged infantrymen. By nightfall, he was dead. When his body was recovered, it had five enemy bullet wounds. He was two months shy of his 22nd birthday.

Charlie Company suffered 80 percent casualties that day, but Pitsenbarger was credited with helping to save more than 60 men. His Air Force commanders nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but an army general recommended on a questionable technicality that it be downgraded to the Air Force Cross. Pitsenbarger was the first airman to be so honored, but the eyewitness survivors believed his sacrificial service warranted the highest recognition of military valor, the Medal of Honor.

It took them thirty-four years, but they finally achieved their objective. On December 8th, 2000, his aged parents, Frank and Alice Pitsenbarger, accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near their home in Ohio. He was the second enlisted Air Force member to receive the award since the Air Force became a separate service in 1947.

Lionsgate has now brought Pitsenbarger’s story to the screen. The Last Full Measure is not so much a war movie per se as it is a post-war reflection on the life of this one man. The story opens in 1999 Washington, D.C., when a young defense department lawyer is assigned the task of reviewing the request for Pitsenbarger’s decoration upgrade. Cynical and ambitions, he is not happy about this. Nevertheless, Scott Huffman begrudgingly sets out to interview the Operation Abilene survivors. Most are reclusive, and he must seek them out, one by one, on their terms. He also meets and becomes friends with Pitsenbarger’s beautiful, but still bereaved, parents. Though “Pits” is long gone, the cynical lawyer comes to know him through the eyes of those left behind.

Gradually, as the story comes out, Huffman comes to respect the veterans, each of whom suffers in one way or another as a result of Vietnam. And over time, a desire to see the upgrade request through to its just completion overcomes his advance-at-any-cost career ambition. In the words of one of the veterans, he grows a conscience.

The Last Full Measure is not what you would call a “Christian” movie, but it taps into deep biblical themes about humanity and the meaning of life. Pitsenbarger put his own life on the line in order to save others, and every single one of those lives was profoundly altered because of it. Not just by virtue of the fact that they lived; they were moved by his courage, his valor, and his selflessness. Despite the scars that they bore from war, and those were many, they were different men, deep in their souls, because one young man gave himself for them. Pitsenbarger’s life changed every life he touched, long after he was gone.

The Last Full Measure has a star-studded cast (but don’t see it for that reason), and it’s rated R for war scenes (but don’t let that stop you from seeing it). Watch it, if for no other reason, than to be inspired and reminded that the meaning of life is inextricably tied up with sacrificial love. In our rapidly degenerating culture, with people of all ages experiencing a crisis of meaning, Pitsenbarger’s gift of himself is a rare example of a life well-spent.

The Last Full Measure is now available on Digital, and will be available on Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand beginning April 21st. Click here to see the trailer.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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