The Medal of Honor represents the highest decoration a member of the United States Armed Forces can receive. Since the award’s inception in 1861, it has had 3,498 recipients.
Just 18 of Medals of Honor have been awarded to members of the Air Force. And of those, only three were enlisted men.
William Pitsenbarger was one of those men. He was awarded that honor on Dec. 8, 2000—more than 34 years after he gave his life rescuing and protecting his fellow soldiers in a bloody ambush near Cam My in the early days of the Vietnam conflict.
The Last Full Measure recounts two stories: the story of what happened that terrible day, April 11, 1966, on which William Pitsenbarger saved so many at the cost of his own life; and the story of the decades-long battle waged by those who survived to see that Pitsenbarger’s heroic courage and sacrifice on their behalf was formally recognized.
The Last Full Measure revolves around the courage of William Pitsenbarger. But his story is told largely from the perspective of someone who didn’t fight in Vietnam, an ambitious young lawyer named Scott Huffman. At first, Scott doesn’t care a whit about whether the fallen airman ever receives the award. But one of Pitsenbarger’s fellow airmen, Tully, persistently presses the case. He refuses to let it go. And it falls to Scott to investigate whether or not Pitsenbarger should be officially recommended for the Medal of Honor.
Grudgingly at first, Scott begins to dig into the story of what happened more than three decades before. But doing so requires interviewing survivors. And so he seeks them out, one by one. Every one of them is deeply scarred by the events of that day. Every one of them regrets choices they made. Every one of them must face his own inner demons to tell Scott his story.
There’s Billy Takoda, the squad leader who was badly wounded and whose errors in judgment perhaps led to more deaths. There’s Jimmy Burr, an eager soldier who takes a bullet to the head in the battle but survives, though he’s horribly haunted by PTSD and hasn’t slept at night since the war. Gruff Ray Mott drives a bus now. Like all of these veterans, he speaks reluctantly as a man haunted by others’ deaths and his own survival.
Scott also meets William Pitsenbarger’s parents, Frank and Alice. They’ve not touched his bedroom since 1966. They long for recognition for their son, though they also take comfort in the fact that their boy’s character and courage saved so many.
With each interview, each revelation, Scott becomes more invested in the assignment he’s been given. In fact, investigating Pitsenbarger’s sacrifice slowly begins to transform him and change his motivations, as well as making him take his marriage and fatherhood more seriously. In the end, he becomes more committed to serving the fallen airman’s memory than he is advancing his own career. And his own courage in confronting an influential veteran who’s now a senator proves key to finally seeing William Pitsenbarger posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
The film focuses, obviously, on Pitsenbarger’s story. But it also painfully and poignantly helps us to see how the war affected surviving veterans. Takoda tells him of the wounds inflicted by his fellow Americans after the war. “I was a refugee in my own country,” he says. “And that hurt way more than bullets.”
We see that William was raised by devout, character-filled parents. When Scott asks them if they ever regretted their son’s patriotic determination to serve his country, Alice Pitsenbarger replies, “You can’t teach your children values and then just withdraw them because of what you might lose. … Bill honored all of us by serving, and it’s no small thing.”
His father, Frank, says of his young son going to war, “I was never so frightened, and I was never so proud.” Frank goes on to recount, in his son’s bedroom, all the things he misses, concluding, “But mostly I missed what I didn’t get to see him do: marry, fall in love with a child of his own. Only then would he understand how much his father loved him.”
In his quest for information, Scott eventually travels to Vietnam to meet another veteran who now lives there, a man named Kepper. He’s become something of a hermit philosopher whose mission is to help veterans who come to visit him to make peace with their horrific past.
Ultimately, this film emphasizes not only sacrifice, courage and bravery, but the incredible difference one person can make.
Frank Pitsenbarger says grace before Thanksgiving dinner. More than once, William Pitsenbarger is compared to an angel because of the way he descended from an Air Force helicopter and helped to save so many.
Similarly, it’s not hard to see Pitsenbarger as a kind of Christ figure here. He comes down from above to give his life for men he doesn’t even know. And even though he could have chosen to leave at any time, he doesn’t, heroically saving and rescuing many of the Army soldiers around him. Indeed, these men are incredulous that an Air Force medic would so courageously risk and ultimately give his life to save them.
We see that Kepper has embraced a syncretistic spirituality. He talks of prayer, and we glimpse a statue of the Buddha, lit incense sticks and painting of Mary. We also hear how soldiers prayed to survive during the battle.
Early on, Scott jokes about his meetings that day to his wife, calling them “today’s adventures in post-traumatic exorcism.” Takoda says “I wish to God” things could have been different that day.
Scott’s wife, Tara, wears a nightgown and robe that reveal a bit of cleavage. She and Scott kiss.
We hear of the deep love between Pitsenbarger and his girl back in the States, Jenny.
Multiple flashbacks picture the battle at the heart of the story. We repeatedly see combatants on both sides shot and killed. Many others are hurled through the air as victims of grenades and artillery.
Most of the casualties aren’t terribly graphic or gory. But there are exceptions. We briefly see the spilled entrails of one Viet Cong fighter after he’s shot. Takoda is shot multiple times in the back, and we see Pitsenbarger working to staunch the bleeding from one enormous bullet hole. Another soldier’s leg has been ravaged. Still another is shot in the head. Multiple wounded and bloodied soldiers are airlifted up in a litter.
Soldiers scream in terror and pain. Viet Cong walk among the fallen, shooting bodies to make sure that soldiers who appear dead actually are. (In one case, an American pretending to be dead is shot and killed.) A soldier’s first kill is crudely compared to losing one’s virginity. Americans shoot Vietnamese out of sniper nests in trees, and their bodies plunge to the ground.
Back in the present, Jimmy only gets up at night (because he’s too frightened to sleep while it’s dark). He carries a loaded shotgun and fires it into the air when Scott asks if it’s loaded. We also see Jimmy kill what appears to be a rabbit with his bare hands. His wife says of him, “Every day, he finds the courage not to stick a gun in his mouth.” Likewise, Takoda takes a long look at pistol in a drawer, perhaps suggesting his own struggles with the temptation of taking his own life.
We hear about 10 f-words and a dozen or so s-words. God’s name is misused a dozen times, 10 of which are paired with “d–n.” Jesus name is abused five times. “H—” is used about a dozen times. And we hear one or two uses each of “a–,” “a–hole” and “p-ssed.”
Characters make three crude references to the male or female anatomy. Someone is jokingly called a “pimp.”
One scene pictures people drinking at a meal. Pitsenbarger repeatedly administers battlefield drugs via syringe to help the wounded. Tokada recounts the details of a drunken bar fight. We see him smoking a cigarette, too.
Scott gradually uncovers information that implies Pitsenbarger was denied the Medal of Honor because awarding it was linked to revelations of soldiers dying due to friendly fire and tactical incompetence.
One politician in particular is more interested in making self-protective, expedient choices than doing the right thing. He threatens to wreck Scott’s career if he doesn’t do likewise.
After seeing the eviscerated corpse of a man he’s shot and killed, an American soldier vomits. We see two men (from behind) urinating in a bathroom.
Movies about Vietnam often focus on the graphic horror of it. There may be heroes in these stories, but more often than not, these films—such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter—leave us feeling emotionally depleted and numbed by what we’ve witnessed. They’re often stories of savagery and senselessness and nihilism, with hope and meaning and purpose in short supply.
The Last Full Measure certainly depicts the vicious brutality of close combat. While not as graphically violent as, say, Hacksaw Ridge or Saving Private Ryan, we still get a front-row seat to the war’s carnage. Those images, paired with soldiers’ occasional harsh profanity, make this a tough story to watch at times.
But unlike the stereotypical Vietnam movie, The Last Full Measure brims with hope and meaning amid its story of sacrifice. William Pitsenbarger’s sacrifice is tragic. But we see how giving his life has impacted so many others. And we’re reminded of the cost so many have paid to preserve our freedom.
This R-rated war movie obviously won’t be for everyone. But for those who choose to see it, I can’t imagine walking out of the theater with a dry eye or without a deeper sense of gratitude for those who’ve proudly and bravely served in our Armed Forces.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.