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How Alabama vets helped shape a Samuel L. Jackson movie

Samuel L. Jackson (pinguino k/WikiCommons)

His good luck charm was a little leprechaun stuffed doll. Harry O’Beirne carried it with him on 359 rescue combat missions he flew during the Vietnam War.

One of those missions took place on April 11, 1966 in Phuoc Tuy Province. Operation Abilene is known as one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, with badly outnumbered U.S. soldiers suffering high casualty rates. Casualties would’ve been much higher that day without William H. Pitsenbarger, a U.S. Air Force pararescue medic who saved more than 60 men in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

More than 30 years later, Pitsenbarger was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his heroism that day. A new film, “The Last Full Measure,” which itself took around 20 years to reach fruition, tells that story. O’Beirne, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and wife Tommie O’Beirne attended an Atlanta premiere for “Last Full Measure” earlier this year. Asked emotions he felt watching the film, Harry says, “You get a little stormy inside when you see somebody you know getting killed again. A lot of the guys got killed that day.”

A Huntsville resident, O’Beirne was born in Dublin and his Irish accent remains intact. He’s dealt with Parkinson’s Disease for about 20 years, so that colors his speech. You can still clearly hear O’Beirne’s strength through. I’m going to try and remember him next time I’m about to moan about spotty wi-fi reception.

“The Last Full Measure” features stirring performances from stars including Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd and Ed Harris. Sebastian Stan plays a Pentagon staffer named Scott Huffman investigating a Medal of Honor request for Pitsenbarger. Along the way, obtaining testimony of Pitsenbarger’s valor from fellow vets, Huffman uncovers something else too.

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Around 1999, eventual “Last Full Measure” writer/director Todd Robinson was researching another pararescuemen, or PJ, related project. “The young airmen wanted to make sure I knew about Pitsenbarger because he was really sort of their patron saint,” Robinson says. “He’d really set the bar for them. I kept hearing stories about this battled called Operation Abilene, over and over again.” Robinson was intrigued. But he was already bottled-up with this other project. At the end of that project’s cycle, Robinson ended up at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, where Pitsenbarger’s father Frank Pitsenbarger had been asked to speak. That day, hearing the elder Pitsenbarger lament losing his only child, Robinson was moved. His thoughts went to his relationship with his own father and children.

That’s when the concept clicked for what became “The Last Full Measure.” “This is not a story about a battle, it’s a story about the people that love and support our warriors,” Robinson says. Although Vietnam War films are often politically charged, Robinson says, “this is not a political movie, it’s a human movie.” Service greater than self is the key theme, he adds. “One person can really make a difference, even though you may never see where those concentric rings from the pebble in the pond ultimately reach.”

“Last Full Measure” previously came close to being made three or four times. But then an actor or funding would fall through. Robinson says Mark Damon, a producer whose extensive credits include “Monster,” “The Lost Boys,” and “Lone Survivor,” was pivotal in finally making “Last Full Measure” reality. “It was still brutal,” Robinson says, “to hold the money together, to hold the cast together, to schedule it. Nothing about it was easy.” He believes this is mainly because the project wasn’t anti-Vietnam or anti-military in tone. Robinson and filmmaking partner/producer Sidney Sherman went around Hollywood “literally five times” trying to get their film made. “People were really judging it. So that was frustrating. But once I met these veterans, there’s no way to not become personally involved when you hear their stories and they show you their heart. There was just no way that I could not get it done.” (Even the phrase “last full measure” refers to honoring the dead.)

Getting feedback from vets who lived through something like Operation Abilene is an emotional endeavor. But more complicated is explaining to people whose arc is being adapted into a movie, end goal is to tell a more universal story. And to some extent the production will be liberal with facts to do so.

Getting accurate props for a period-film to look right has its challenges too, Robinson says, because “none of that stuff is left. We needed 105 Howitzers, they’re all gone. We were fortunate just to find the M16s. We had to make a lot of the uniforms.” When obtaining the exact helicopter, an HH-43 Huskie, proved cost prohibitive, Robinson was faced with using CGI effects or a real helicopter that wasn’t period-correct, he opted for latter. “If you even think for a second that it’s a fake helicopter you’re out of the movie. So that will always bother me, but the Air Force guys were all on board with it. They were like, ‘Hey man that’s not what the story’s about. It’s about the men in the helicopter.’”

“The Last Full Measure” was filmed in locations including Thailand and Atlanta, with a reported $20 million budget. Roadside Attractions, production company for standouts like “Winter’s Bone,” “Manchester by Sea” and “The Skeleton Twins” distributed it. Technical consultants included Dale Dye, the Marine vet who’s advised on classic war films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Platoon.” Bill Chivalette, an Air Force Vietnam veteran, author and historian who resides in the Montgomery area, also consulted. In researching his 1997 book about U.S. airmen “Unsung Heroes,” Chivalette couldn’t find anything credible about Pitsenbarger. He contacted Pitsenbarger’s father, who agreed to meet with Chivalette if he traveled to him.

A World War II veteran, Frank was gruff at first but eventually warmed to Chivalette. He’d saved many mementos of his son, known as “Pits” among fellow soldiers, and helped Chivalette procure other items from a local library. “We uncovered about 300 documents and photos nobody had ever seen before,” Chivalette says. “Once I started reading official accounts of his action and all evidence we were gathering, I was in shock because he was much more of a hero than anybody even thought. They credit him with saving lives that went up into the helicopter. But they don’t tell you what happened on the ground.”

With bullets flying and Viet Cong, including those firing down from trees overhead, completely surrounding U.S. soldiers, there was no place to hide. After riding a helicopter hoist to the ground “into a hot LZ,” a dangerous place to land, Pits, age 21, began treating the wounded. Pits then began removing weapons and ammunition off the dead and giving them to living U.S. soldiers, pulled together into a tight circle. He hid wounded U.S. soldiers under dead ones. “When the helicopter had to leave,” Chivalette says, “he waved them off when he could have got out of there, and he probably knew he probably wouldn’t survive this. But there were so many people down there who needed him.” Unfortunately Pits’ fate ran out. He was killed there that day.

As heroic as Pits was on April 11, 1966, O’Beirne stresses his fallen friend was “just an ordinary guy.” ” O’Beirne says, “And just like everybody else he liked a beer every once in a while. We got along well. We were going to go back to school together. He got killed. That wasn’t part of the plan.”

After the war, O’Beirne attended and graduated from the University of Alabama and became an anesthetist. He met his eventual wife Tommie, a Birmingham native, while working at a hospital. They’ve been married 53 years. At the Atlanta premiere, Harry and other Vietnam vets in attendance got to meet the film’s stars. Tommie says the actors, including Jackson who took a photo with his arm around Harry, “were very approachable and easy to talk to.”

“The Last Full Measure” was Fonda’s final film. In it, the “Easy Rider” icon portrays a veteran with a damaged soul. Robinson remembers Fonda as “a really sensitive lovely guy who suffered from his own post-traumatic stress from issues he had to overcome over his lifetime. I think Peter and the rest of these actors that age (in the film) wanted to pay tribute to the people they knew who were hurt by that war. And who never got a proper homecoming.” In perhaps the ultimate compliment from a real Vietnam vet to an actor playing one, O’Beirne says, ” I’m not very fond of his sister, but Peter Fonda he did a good job.”

Back when filming began, Jackson arrived on set and immediately announced, in his booming voice, it wasn’t a movie until he said a certain expletive Jackson’s known for saying in many films. Jokes aside, Robinson says Jackson was extremely prepared and professional. Jackson’s performance was consistent down to how he smoked a cigarette – a nightmare for film editors because most actors do each puff slightly differently – exactly the same way on every take.

After its theatrical release ends, “The Last Full Measure” will hit the video/streaming market in April. Tommie isn’t normally that big on war movies, but she’s now seen this one four times. “It’s more realistic as to what war the way it affects families in general and the country as a whole,” she says. “And the characters are real as to what some of the vets have experienced. We are so grateful for Todd Robinson and Sidney Sheldon – it took 20 years for them to do it but they did a wonderful job.” O’Beirne still has that leprechaun charm from his Vietnam rescue missions. It’s now framed and hanging up in a wall in the den of he and Tommie’s home, along with his medals. And thanks to people like Harry O’Beirne, William Pitsenbarger got a medal too.

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