Veteran featured in new movie witnessed fellow pararescueman’s selfless heroism in Vietnam

‘The Last Full Measure’ details bloody battle and the fight for honor that followed the war

ORANGE PARK, Fla. – Starting tomorrow, the true story of a Vietnam War hero -- a man who gave his life to save others on the battlefield -- will be told in movie theaters nationwide.

“The Last Full Measure” details how U.S. Air Force Pararescueman William “Pits” Pitsenbarger Jr. volunteered to be lowered into the thick jungle near Saigon during a fierce firefight in order to care for wounded soldiers and protect them from the enemy. Pits ultimately lost his life that day in 1966, but not before ensuring so many other men survived.

It took 34 years and pushing from fellow pararescuemen (PJs) long after the war, for Pits’ original award of the Air Force Cross to be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. One of the pararescuemen credited for helping to make it happen is retired Chief Master Sgt. David Milsten, who now lives in Orange Park. Milsten’s fight to honor Pits for his selfless acts of heroism is also featured in “The Last Full Measure.”

Editor’s Note: For people wanting to learn about William Pitsenbarger Jr.’s story by watching the movie first, please note that there are details below about his acts of valor on the battlefield and how he ultimately received the Medal of Honor.

Selfless acts of heroism

Operation Abeline is considered one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. It was April 11, 1966, when soldiers with Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division were pinned down by the enemy.

Pitsenbarger was 21 years old and had flown nearly 300 rescue missions during the war. He was “off duty” when he volunteered to ride on one of the helicopter flights to help those trapped infantry soldiers.

Milsten was 26 years old at the time, in a separate helicopter from Pitsenbarger, unloading soldiers Milsten had just rescued, when Pitsenbarger volunteered once again -- this time to be lowered through the thick jungle and onto the ground to help the injured service members.

“The bullets are flying so thick,” recalled Milsten. “Imagine you’ve got 500 guys shooting at you at one time -- machine guns, automatic rifles -- and you’ve got 134 guys shooting out. The bullets are flying so thick, if you stuck your hand up, you’d lose your fingers just about.”

Milsten, in between pickups to rescue American service members with his helicopter, was able to photograph Pitsenbarger making history.

“I just stuck the camera down and shot these two pictures, and then I got back to work,” he explained. “It’s probably one of the few times that a photograph has been taken of a Medal of Honor recipient as he was earning the Medal of Honor.”

Little did Milsten know at the time, but it would be Pitsenbarger’s final mission.

“The first time we got hit from below, the rounds went right through the helicopter like butter and out the top,” he recalled, later sharing photographs with News4Jax from his days in the military (press play above to see more). “But we felt we were invincible.”

In “The Last Full Measure,” Milsten is portrayed as a character named “Tulley,” who is played by actor William Hurt, and Pitsenbarger is played by actor Jeremy Irvine.

Pitsenbarger evacuated, defended and provided medical care for men he didn’t know before making the ultimate sacrifice by waving off a rescue helicopter for himself so he could stay on the ground and care for the injured while returning fire on the enemy.

“He was dragging the wounded back from the perimeter of his fight cause the Army guys had formed a circle perimeter shooting outwards. A very tight circle,” said Milsten. “Bill (Pitsenbarger) was encouraging them to get up and fight. He was dragging the wounded back. He also gathered ammunition because mostly young guys were shooting full automatic and burning right through their ammo. He was grabbing clips from the dead and redistributing them to the Army guys on the ground. He treated as many as he could.”

Even though Pitsenbarger was shot three times himself, he kept helping until a fourth bullet took his life. According to the Department of Defense, Pitsenbarger fought until the very end -- found with a rifle in one hand and a medical kit in the other.

Fighting for honor

“The Last Full Measure” focuses on what Pitsenbarger did that day, the story of the mud soldiers years after Vietnam, and also the 34-year fight to award Pitsenbarger the highest military award for valor.

Milsten was instrumental in gathering new evidence and testimony to present to Congress on Pitsenbarger’s behalf in consideration for the Medal of Honor, and in the film, Sebastian Stan (known for his role as “Bucky” in the Avengers series) plays the role of a Pentagon official reviewing the case.

WATCH ABOVE: Uncut interview with retired Chief Master Sgt. David Milsten

“We knew Bill deserved the Medal of Honor all of these years, but we didn’t know how to go about getting new evidence. And it wasn’t until the Air Force Sergeant Association did a study on Bill, on a series they did on Air Force heroes, and one of the studies was on Bill Pitsenbarger. That started to get the interest going,” Milsten explained.

In a ceremony on Dec. 8, 2000, at the Air Force Museum in Ohio, which was 34 years after Pitsenbarger was killed in action, the Medal of Honor was presented posthumously to the Vietnam War hero. His father, played by Christopher Plummer in the film, accepted the award on his son’s behalf.

Pitsenbarger’s story is a small part of Milsten’s own military career, which included rescuing hundreds of soldiers and earning 11 Air Medals, two Meritorious Service Medals, two Air Force Commendation Medals and more.

“The Last Full Measure”

Todd Robinson, the writer and director of “The Last Full Measure,” first learned about Pitsenbarger and his selfless acts on the Vietnam battlefield 20 years ago. He’s been working to make this movie ever since. He wrote it, and despite roadblocks along the way, he got the backing to make the movie, acquired a star-studded cast, and then directed the movie for the big screen. (Watch the trailer below)

To learn more about Robinson’s lengthy road to get his movie made, read this story from Air Force Magazine.

We contacted Robinson’s staff, telling them the story we planned to do with Milsten in preparation for the release of the movie. They gave us permission to use the “The Last Full Measure” trailer to help us tell the story of a hero who selflessly gave his life on the battlefield and one local pararescueman who wanted to make sure the Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded to his fallen comrade.

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