When Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger posthumously received a Medal of Honor for his valor and sacrifice during the Vietnam War, retired Air Force Pararescueman SMSgt John Pighini was at the ceremony.
In March 1966, Pitsenbarger was killed in action after intentionally placing himself in harm's way to rescue Army infantrymen pinned down by the enemy during Operation Abilene during the Vietnam War. He received the Air Force Cross for his actions, but the men he saved never forgot what his sacrifice meant.
After 34 years, his Air Force Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in a ceremony that took place on Dec. 8, 2000, just in time for Pitsenbarger's father to accept the medal on his son's behalf.
Nearly 20 years later, The Last Full Measure tells the story of Pitsenbarger's heroism and the efforts it took to present him with the Medal of Honor, the highest military award in the United States of America.
The film recreates the moving Medal of Honor ceremony. John Pighini was there for that, too, which is how his filmmaking journey began.
"We'd known about the movie for years — it took almost 20 years to get it done. They'd always told us [members of the pararescue community] we could be in the remake of the Medal of Honor ceremony," Pighini recalled. While there he noticed some military details that weren't quite correct -- so he spoke up and found the director and crew willing to listen and make adjustments.
Director Todd Robinson quickly recognized that Pighini was a valuable resource for his film. Pighini served in Vietnam after graduating from his pararescue training program in November 1966. He would earn a Silver Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross for his rescue missions during the war. He would also serve as the first pararescue superintendent for the 24th Special Tactics Squadron and he now serves as vice president of the Pararescue Association.
So, he knows a thing or two about providing medical aid on the battlefield and combat in Southeast Asia.
Todd Robinson, Jeremy Irvine, August Blanco Rosenstein, John Pighini on set for The Last Full Measure in Thailand, 2017. (Photo by Eddie Rosenstein)
His unique experience made him a particularly helpful resource for creating accuracy for the film. "I taught combat medicine so I was very much in tune with setting up exercises and working with people to ensure everything is done correctly. I was also involved in helicopter operations for so many years," Pighini stated. He was brought on to film on location with the cast and crew as they shot the Vietnam scenes for the film.
Of course, anyone who has worked on a film knows that it isn't always possible to be completely accurate. Budget limitations or storytelling choices will often take precedence.
"The important thing was that we told Pits' story and it resonated with people. There are those who point out that we didn't have the right helicopter, but there was only one 43 [Kaman HH-43F] and the guy just wouldn't let it go so we used the Huey [Bell UH-1 Iriquois]. But the movie wasn't about the Hueys, it was about Pits. It was about going down and saving lives, knowing full well what was coming his way that night. It was about our creed: these things we do that others may live," Pighini reflected.
When I asked him about the idea of heroism, Pighini grew solemn. "Pararescuemen...it's in your blood. Like nurses and doctors — when people want to help people, it's a calling. To me, it was always about saving a life. I didn't feel like I was being a hero. The guys that gave the last full measure...they're the heroes."
'The Last Full Measure' Trailer
The Last Full Measure is available on Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital and includes special features for fans of military history:
- "The Women of The Last Full Measure" Featurette
- "Medal of Honor Ceremony Shoot" Featurette
- "The Others May Live: Remembering Operation Abilene" Featurette
- "USAF Museum Screening with Veterans Pitsenbarger Family" Featurette
- "The Music of The Last Full Measure" Featurette
- "William Pitsenbarger Tribute" Photo Gallery