Q&A with John Pighini, military advisor for ‘The Last Full Measure’

Airman First Class William “Pits” Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross in 1966. The 2019 film “The Last Full Measure” dramatizes the effort to have his award upgraded to the Medal of Honor, which took nearly 34 years and made Pitsenbarger the first enlisted Medal of Honor recipient in history.

John Pighini, SMSgt, (USAF, Ret.) served as a pro-bono military advisor on the film. Like Pitsenbarger, he was a Pararescueman during the Vietnam War. His military awards and decorations include Silver Star for gallantry in action, the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism, the Airman’s Medal for heroism, six Air Medals, and the “Cheney Award” for heroism, among other awards and decorations. Today he serves as vice-president of the Pararescue Association.

As the film releases to DVD, Blu-Ray and On Demand this week, we had a chance to ask Sgt. Pighini a few questions about his career and his contributions to the film.

Behind the scenes on “The Last Full Measure.” L to R: film director Todd Robinson, military advisor John Pighini, and actor Jeremy Irvine. Photo credit: John Pighini)

VVMF: What were your goals as an advisor on this film?

PIGHINI: I was in Southeast Asia soon after Pits got killed. I was in Pararescue training at that time, and we received the word pretty quickly of how he died. We were looking at one another saying, okay, that’s the bar. It’s been set by Pitsenbarger. I’ve seen several military movies, and some of them take a lot of liberty. I wanted to make sure that we portrayed Pitsenbarger, and what he did that day, in the right light. I wanted it done correctly, for Pits and for the world to know what Pararescuemen do.

Being the military advisor on scene, I made sure that the procedures in the helicopter, the hoist operation, what Pits would have done on the ground, all of that was factually accurate. I also made sure the little details were right — the dog tags were vintage, the boots were right, the uniforms were put on correctly. And, you know, basically just making sure that the jargon was right, that they didn’t use language we wouldn’t have used. I tried to make it all as authentic as I could.

Are you satisfied with the results?

I talked with the director and the executive producer before we left for Thailand and got a commitment from them that if I did this pro bono, that they would try to appease me everywhere they could. The directors were perfect with me. If I thought something wasn’t apropos, they changed it. Todd [Robinson] is a great director, and he wanted to get it right for the Pararescue community.

There’s nothing for me to complain about. We showed the movie at the Pararescue school down in Albuquerque, for the largest graduating class we’ve ever had. The reaction of the cadre, trainees and their families to the movie was all I needed. Their gratitude tells me we did a good job.

What was the biggest challenge in balancing authenticity with a compelling movie narrative?

Just to make sure that we didn’t portray things that we wouldn’t have done in a firefight. You could start an IV, but probably not. You would do a tracheotomy if needed. That would be fine. Put a flutter valve through to the chest cavity for a sucking chest wound, which is in the movie. But no body-to-body blood transfusions, for example. It’s not that we couldn’t do it — Pararescuemen could absolutely do that, and it had been done — but not in a firefight. You wouldn’t ask some guy to give up a pint of blood in a firefight. He might need it if he got wounded.

Pits was killed in action 54 years ago. His MOH upgrade happened 20 years ago. And yet Hollywood is telling the story today. Why do you think it continues to be so relevant?

I think there are three things that are really paramount in this movie. First, it shows the heroism that was displayed by Pits to do the job that he did, in accordance with our creed as Pararescuemen. Not only did he do that, but he saved lives. He knew he wasn’t going to get out that night, and he just went about doing what he was trained to do. This guy was going to do his job no matter what.

Secondly, the movie shows that the post-traumatic stress effects on the mud soldiers are still very real to this day, for all veterans. I’ve met a lot of the guys from the Big Red One — the unit that got butchered that day, eighty percent casualties. For almost a year I traveled around with Todd and [producer] Sidney [Sherman], showing the movie. I wanted people to understand about post-traumatic stress and how it still affects all those who have been in combat.

And finally, the movie shows the brotherhood, which is a great aspect of the military. I remember when I came back from Vietnam and what it was like. I didn’t fit any more, and that’s the song a lot of the veterans sing. I’ve got Pararescue brothers to this day, fifty-some years we’ve been friends, and we still stay in touch. When we see one another, it’s like I just saw them last week. It’s incredible.

You mentioned your own homecoming experience. Are you comfortable talking a little more about that?

When I came home in December of 1967, this was the year of the hippies, the “summer of love” and all that. I was stationed at Hamilton Air Force Base, just north of San Francisco. You can imagine what life was like for a G.I. with short hair — everybody else looked like a Beatle, and you just didn’t fit in. In fact, nobody even wanted to talk to you. They didn’t like you and had little respect for the military. 

[A short time later] my mother got terminal cancer. The Air Force sent me to New Hampshire, the closest base to Philadelphia, so that I could be near my mother before she passed. Then I got out for a year and went back to Philadelphia to be with her. The whole time I was out, I couldn’t wait to get back in. You’d see the guys you went to high school with, and they’re just on a different sheet of music than you. It didn’t feel right, so back in I went, and I was around people that understood me. And I understood them.

I certainly don’t like war, but I loved doing what I did, being a Pararescueman, going out and saving lives. I’ve had some precarious situations, even in training. Any time you’re jumping out of an airplane in the middle of the ocean, you’re hanging it out. Any time you’re jumping at night, you’re hanging it out. Any time you’re in a helicopter going into an austere area, you’re hanging it out. So it takes a certain type of guy, to go to the last full measure and get the job done no matter what. And a lot of our men have paid the ultimate price.

Describe your experience as a viewer of this film.

I saw the movie twenty-five times, and I stood there afterwards doing the Q&A with the audience. A lot of them were military, but some weren’t. So many of them said they wanted to see it again, and that they wanted their friends and relatives to see it in order to better understand what combat and its aftermath were like. They all loved it and there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater.

You’ve been retired since 1987. How did you finally adapt to civilian life?

You’ve got to have a mission. I mean, I’ve got to keep busy all the time. I went into the orthopedic consulting business and wound up with my own distributorship that kept me busy. Now that I’m retired, my wife and I have five horses here in Fredericksburg on a small ranch. We have some veterans, Wounded Warriors, who stop by to be with the horses. It’s extraordinary connection time, and we don’t charge anything for it. I have one guy who had 19 years in the Army — he has two Purple Hearts and was hurt pretty badly. He has been coming out regularly to spend time with the horses. It’s been great for him, and the horses love it.

It can be really difficult for a VA psychologist or other mental health professional to relate to these guys — unless you’ve been through it, you don’t know it. And that’s how they feel, too, but most of them won’t say that to a lot of people. If you ain’t been there, then you ain’t been there. How can you relate?

Does the kind of unflinching, unhesitating selflessness that Pits displayed exist in civilian life?

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the Pararescue creed: “It is my duty as a Pararescueman to save life and to aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts. These things I do, that others may live.”

Today you have this Covid-19 virus and everybody’s trying to stay away from it, which is good. But think about the people that go into the hospitals every day. Look at the  doctors, nurses, paramedics, firemen, police officers, cooks, valets, trash men, administrative personnel, whoever is sweeping the floor. Those people are going the extra mile to go into that hostile environment. Why? “So that others may live.”

It doesn’t just pertain to Pararescue.