Why we all need to understand the Medal of Honor
There's an extraordinary brotherhood that exists among us but few will ever actually meet these honored members. Like our sacred flag, woven together by humility, valor and extreme courage, this is a community of men who never sought recognition -- rather earned it -- through their own strength, service and sacrifice. These incredible heroes are the recipients of the Medal of Honor.
In the military community, these men are treated with an indescribable reverence; a gratitude that runs deep because of the understanding of the gravity of the citation. Most of these men shouldn't be alive and many who have earned the Medal never lived to see it. But in the civilian community, the awards often blend together, confusing hearts with crosses, silver with purple.
Now, a major motion picture is closing that information gap, educating the public on the Medal of Honor while pulling at your heartstrings. The Last Full Measure, in theaters nationwide on January 24, has an all star cast that tells the incredible, true story of William H. Pitsenbarger. Pitsenbarger was a U.S. Air Force Pararescueman credited with saving over 60 men after an ambush on the Army's 1st Infantry Division during a battle in Vietnam. The story couples his heroic actions with the relentless efforts, spanning three decades, made by the men he saved to ensure he was posthumously honored.
Following the Washington, D.C. premiere screening of The Last Full Measure, We Are The Mighty had the opportunity to sit with Medal of Honor recipient First Lieutenant Brian M. Thacker and Medal of Honor Foundation Vice President of External Affairs Dan Smith, to get their take on the movie.
WATM: Tell me your thoughts on the movie.
Thacker: This fills in so many blanks. I knew the Pitsenbarger story and then all of a sudden it kind of happened. In the story, it becomes very clear. The question you have is what was the Air Force guy doing with a leg unit in the first place? And then you think about it and yeah, it's exactly how it works: the guys closest respond to the call. They were doing joint operations back then and they didn't even know it. The movie is no frills, a straight story of not just Pitsenbarger, but the whole unit that kept the dream of the award moving forward. It's a story that needs to be told. There's a story like that behind every Medal of Honor ever presented.
If you were over there, you know there are many other stories that deserve to be recognized. For a long time, Pitsenbarger was one of them.
WATM: I understand why this story is so important for the Medal of Honor brotherhood and to the veteran population. Why do you think it's critical for civilians to see as well?
Thacker: First of all, they need to learn what the Medal means. It's not a me award. Pitsenbarger is the medic with the award, but it really goes to all of the men in that company that were put in an untenable situation. The stories that came out of what happens as a result are equally as important. It's not over when the shooting stops. The camaraderie and the close bond of serving together is what gets us through.
WATM: There's a great line in the movie about how the medal means so much more than a battle; it's the story behind it that connects us all. What story does your medal tell?
Thacker: The other half of the story behind mine is that of a Recon Sergeant that got an assignment he didn't want but came out with a DSC. My guess is that his citation, like mine, was written at the highest level. But our unit was a Joe six pack, a bunch of people from all over the country that didn't realize how untenable our situation was really going to be until the first shot was fired. Then it was, 'Oh Lord, just let us hang on. We just need to get through this day.' It all comes down to everyone just trying to help each other get through the day. Certainly you don't do it by yourself.
WATM to Smith: What does having a MOH recipient in the audience tonight mean to you?
Smith: It's beyond special. Young airman Pitsenbarger's story is inspiring and remarkable. What we try to do and what our mission is, is to raise resources to let recipients tell their stories and to bring that and the legacy of the Medal to the communities. The most senior leaders in our military and our government talk about the less than one percent who serve and this growing civilian and military divide.
For these gentlemen to be able to tell their stories, not just to the military but to the community will close this gap. I'm hopeful that everyday people will see this movie, hear these heroic stories and change the ambivalence that often comes without knowing the impact of the award. So many men came home from Vietnam and weren't able to tell their stories. I'm hopeful this will reach not just veterans of that generation but the younger generations as well.
WATM: What do you think this film teaches the next generation?
Thacker: We did everything we could to bury Vietnam. The young people that were born after the war grew up in the dark, unless you were living with a Vietnam veteran and you were living it right with your dad. It's very symbolic. We see the same thing with young people who volunteered after 9/11; this mentality that I need to be a part of this. It's 50 years later but it's the same ethic that bubbles up.
You can take that notion of service far beyond the military. It's in the fire departments, police departments and even the teaching community; this sense of service above self. You see bits and pieces of that in this movie and I hope it's one the kids will watch because it's living history.
WATM: Was there any particular scene in this movie that really resonated with you?
Thacker: When Pitsenbarger realized he had to go down to help them to teach them how to use the litter. Being in that position does something to your pucker factor. People who have been there, you can ask them: 'Do you remember what it felt like?' They'll tell you they were very afraid. Knowing you are in over your head and wondering who you turn to for help, that happens all the time. There will be a lot of people who understand that feeling of all of a sudden being in charge.
WATM: As a MOH recipient, I imagine you're invited to events like this all of the time. Is there a particular event you have been a part of that has had a profound impact on your life?
Thacker: Being able to attend an Inauguration and to witness the peaceful transfer of power was an incredible experience. I don't think people understand how truly special and uniquely American that is.
WATM: Is there anything else you want people to know about either you or the Medal of Honor Foundation?
Thacker: We still have something to say. I remember when the Baby Boom generation wasn't going to amount to much. Now we're saying the same thing about Millenials, and I promise you, we'll be as wrong about them as our parents were about us. That willingness to stand up and take the risk is fairly common.
Smith: These men have incredible stories to tell. My hope is that through films like The Last Full Measure we'll be able to connect communities with this heroism.
The Last Full Measure will be in theaters January 24. These stories deserve to be told and the valor of The Medal of Honor should live on through all of us. Perpetuating the legacy should be our collective Last Full Measure.
You can buy tickets to see the film and support this story and legacy on The Last Full Measure's website.