Emmy Award-winning writer and director Todd Robinson visited Breitbart News Saturday to discuss the rewards and difficulties of making The Last Full Measure, the incredible story of the Vietnam heroics of Airman William Pitsenbarger and the thirty-year campaign to get him awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Robinson, whose credits include documentaries such as Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick and the TV series The Young Riders, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Chicago PD, spent fifteen years attempting to guide the story of Airman Pitsenbarger to the screen. Robinson appeared on Breitbart News Saturday on May 26 to talk about the film chronicling the soldier’s life and incredible heroism as well as the decades-long journey to award Pitsenbarger the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.
William Hart Pitsenbarger, who died in battle in Vietnam in 1966, was a U.S. Air Force Pararescueman who sacrificed himself defending a unit of soldiers pinned down by the enemy. Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the prestigious Air Force Cross, but supporters wanted him also to be awarded the Medal of Honor, and the campaign finally came to fruition in the year 2000. Pitsenbarger is the first enlisted recipient of the Air Force Cross medal.
Pitsenbarger enlisted in the Air Force in 1962, before the U.S. seriously entered the Vietnam War and three years before America’s first major battle in la Drang in 1965. He became part of the little known Air Force Pararescue service, a branch tasked the with rescue and medical treatment of personnel in both humanitarian and combat environments.
The service is rigorous. Indeed, today Pararescuemen go through some of the longest special operations training courses in the world. The training is so tough that the service has an 80 percent attrition rate.
Pitsenbarger is one of the Pararescueman service’s most heroic figures for his actions saving lives, battling the enemy, and ultimately sacrificing himself so that others could live during action near Cam My in the Republic of Vietnam.
On April 11, 1966, Pitsenbarger and his fellows volunteered to copter into a growing firefight at Cam My, just east of Saigon, where they were tasked with extracting and aiding U.S. soldiers facing stiffening resistance in the jungle below. Pitsenbarger was lowered from his helicopter to the ground, where he began administering medical aid to the wounded. But when one of the copters was struck with small arms fire, he decided not to return to the aircraft to allow it more time to escape the threat and take the wounded back to the base.
By staying, Pitsenbarger was able to save the lives of many of those who also remained behind by rendering medical aid. He also saved the lives of those on the copter, since the aircraft would not likely have made it back with the weight of one more passenger. As the battle grew, he also helped gather needed ammunition from the fallen and eventually grabbed a rifle himself and joined in the defense. He was wounded several times and was eventually felled by a sniper’s bullet to his head.
During his interview, director and writer of The Last Full Measure Todd Robinson talks about the struggle to complete his film about Pitsenbarger’s life and heroism and the significance of telling this story.
Starring Jeremy Irvine as Airman William Pitsenbarger, and also starring such notables as Ed Harris, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Sabastian Stan, Diane Ladd, and more, the film follows the 30-year struggle to get William Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Vietnam.
Robinson had discovered the story of Airman Pitsenbarger when he was researching the Pararescueman service nearly 20 years ago. Robinson soon attended a talk on the airman’s life and sacrifice given by the Pitsenbarger’s father, Frank, and it was that heartfelt talk that made Robinson realize that he had a story – he needed to undertake the task of making this movie.
“I flashed to my young son who was then 12-years-old, and it suddenly occurred to me, cross-generationally, what it would mean to lose a child and how painful that would, be, and it was at that point that I knew that I had a story to tell,” he said.
Robinson noted that it was “very unusual for an Air Force person to come into a ground battle and then save and triage many, many people and then fought and died alongside of them.” Robinson added that the airman’s supporters were “deeply moved by this” and so launched a campaign to get Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor. Still, the Air Force only recommended the Air Force Cross. But by the 1990s, Airman Pitsenbarger’s father had become ill, and supporters knew it was high time to make another major push for the MOH award.
As Robinson describes his film:
The story is about a young Pentagon mid-level bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan named Scott Huffman who is handed the mantle of re-investigating this case. And through the process of interviewing all the veterans who were there in that battle, we get to know what their experiences of William H. Pitsenbarger were, how this young man changed their lives, and why they feel so passionate about getting him the medal before his father passes. And in the process, Scott Huffman’s character is transformed as a man who is really just a very self-interested Washington bureaucrat to a man of service himself.
Robinson noted that he felt he had the same transformation as his lead character, Scott Huffman, as he interviewed many of the same soldiers who gave testimony of Pitsenbarger’s heroics. He was inspired not just by his subject, but by the service and sacrifice of all veterans. After all, the credo of the Pararescueman service is “These things we do that others may live,” Robinson said.
“I was just moved by their vulnerability, their pain, the tragedy that had been in their lives,” Robinson said, “and how they needed to redefine purpose in their lives through trying to do something on behalf of this young man who had saved them. And I just really fell in love with these men, these veterans, and I really wanted to do it for them.”
Robinson also noted that our veterans still need support when they come home and he hoped that his film would help audiences see that these men have much to deal with when they come home from war.
“A thing I wanted to touch on is our complicity as taxpayers and voters in terms of the policies of this country. We send relatively young people to go do these jobs and what we like to tell them when they come back is that the war isn’t who they are, it’s simply what happened to them,” Robinson said. He added that these young people often “just aren’t prepared for what’s coming” when they are shipped off to service.
Robinson went on to praise his cast and said he didn’t know how many Academy Awards and Golden Globe award winners were represented. He also said it was a dream job to be able to direct so many famed players.
The director also said he wants audiences to take away a key idea from his film. Robinson notes that his lead character starts out as a sort of narcissistic character, but the experience of researching Pitsenbarger’s heroism is a life-changing moment for him.
“When he starts to interact with all these veterans and realizes they are men of service and sacrifice,” Robinson says of his Scott Huffman character, “he realizes in the end that the secret sauce for survival and finding purpose is to serve others. And so, by his interaction — and, by the way, my interaction with these men changed my life — you really understand how important service is.”
Robinson also pointed out that the “extras” in the audience during the scene depicting the awarding of the Medal of Honor were many of the veterans who served with Airman Pitsenbarger. It was wonderful for them to be acknowledged, Robinson said.
But in the end, Robinson said that he hoped his film would show Americans how important service is.
“Service is really important, he noted, “and that these men and women who go do these desperately dangerous jobs for us deserve our attention, deserve our acknowledgment. And when you see a veteran, after, maybe, you say ‘thank you for your service,’ ask them how they’re doing. Ask them if they need anything. Let them know that you acknowledge your participation in the great American experience. And that we appreciate what they have done on behalf of the rest of us and that we’re there for them.”
“They have earned and deserve our support,” Robinson concluded.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.