Amid all the accusations, misrepresentations, half-truths, and outright lies in today’s political environment, it’s important that we be reminded that a hero once walked the streets of Piqua, Ohio — William H. Pitsenbarger.
As I sat waiting to go into the theater this past Sunday, I didn’t expect much, maybe a documentary of the type we see at times on PBS. As I looked around, I noted this was an older crowd, older like my Vietnam-era Air Force veteran husband and me.
When the movie began and President Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address delivered on Nov. 19, 1863, came across the screen, “The Last Full Measure,” I was enthralled and within a minute of the grisly depiction of American soldiers fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, tears began to slide down my cheeks. And until the film ended, I sobbed at intervals .
My students at Edison State and I have interviewed Vietnam veterans. The veterans’ stories have moved me deeply. An example among the many is Johnny Looker, winner of two Purple Hearts, who speaks forcefully of almost being destroyed physically and psychologically at the Battle of Angel’s Wing on March 8 and 9, 1969, as he watched his comrades-in-arms die. The widow and son of combat medic Joseph Guy LaPointe, Jr., one of only three Conscientious Objectors in American history to be awarded the Medal of Honor, have spoken to my classes at Edison about Guy’s life before the military, during the military, and their lives following his death at age 20 on June 2, 1969, on a hill in the Quang Tin Province in Vietnam.
I have stood at The Wall in Washington, D.C. and have read the panels with the 58,000-plus names of those who gave the last full measure and have read the notes to the dead left there by their children and grandchildren. I have studied the war, read books and poetry that came out of it and helped my son Quentin, who wrote his research paper his senior year in high school on the Vietnam War, locate resources.
And I sat at the park in Piqua when sculptor Mike Major’s depiction of Pitsenbarger was unveiled.
“The Last Full Measure” traces the trajectory of Scott Huffman, played by Sebastian Stan, to get medic Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Huffman moves from a self-centered civilian interested only in self- promotion to a man who understands war and the sacrifices those who serve make. He is able to persevere, cut through the red tape, and secure the medal for Pitsenbarger who saved over 60 lives before his own was cut short on April 1, 1966, by enemy fire at one of the bloodiest battles in the Vietnam War.
The film also tells the stories of several soldiers at that bloody battle played by Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel Jackson, and Peter Fonda. The screen writer and director are able to plumb the souls of these men to reveal the complexities of their lives in battle and after battle, the guilt, the pain, the disorientation.
The director moves audiences from graphic scenes in the jungle where lives of these young men are mutilated, destroyed to the nation’s capitol and the places to which Huffman must travel to document the stories of the principals and realize his personal conversion.
Every man triumphs, however, as the scenes come to a close and Pitsenbarger’s parents live to attend the ceremony on Dec. 8, 2000, where the Medal of Honor, signed by President Clinton, is given at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at the Museum of the United States Air Force.
In the movie we learn that in the scheme of things in American politics enlisted soldiers and members of the U.S. Air Force are not high on the lists of most in positions of power. Right does triumph, however, from time to time, because we care and are willing to translate our beliefs into positive action.
As I sat at my computer to finish this column, I realized that as a student at Miami University, I walked the halls of the old high school, which is now a senior citizen housing, where Medal of Honor winner Staff Sergeant William H. Pitsenbarger once walked. I was there to take college courses in social and intellectual American history under an astonishing professor.
I close my column by suggesting that perhaps those we’ve sent to D.C. should do a little homework: read President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and do a review of American history, at least the most honorable parts of our history. Maybe then, they’ll be more likely to do their jobs with honor and integrity. After all, that’s what Pitsenbarger and the millions who have served this great country since the War of Independence fought and died for: a country where the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are honored.
Finally, may those who have given “the last full measure” — and I especially today think of Pits and Guy, rest in peace.