Today is November 29 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you venture out to meet glory and danger alike?” In The Peloponnesian War, Athenian historian and general Thucydides recalled the words from Pericles' Funeral Oration “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” People like William Hart Pitsenbarger often venture out to meet glory and danger alike regardless of the life situation.
Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force out of high school. During his basic training in early 1963, he volunteered for Pararescue. Training included the U.S. Army Airborne School, U.S Navy Dive School (SCUBA), survival school, and a rescue and survival medical course. Pitsenbarger was later sent on Temporary Duty (TDY) to Vietnam. Upon completing his first TDY assignment, he volunteered to return and received orders in 1965 to report to Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. His unit was composed of five aircrews that flew three Kaman HH-43F Huskie helicopters. His commander, Major Maurice Kessler, called him "One of a special breed. Alert and always ready to go on any mission."
Pitsenbarger completed more than 250 missions, including one in which he hung from an HH-43's cable to rescue a wounded South Vietnamese soldier from a burning minefield. This action earned him the Airman's Medal and the Republic of Vietnam's Medal of Military Merit and Gallantry Cross with Bronze Palm. On April 11, 1966, the Joint Rescue Center dispatched two Huskies from Detachment 6 to extract a half-dozen or more Army casualties pinned down in a battle near Cam My, 35 miles (56 km) east of Saigon. Upon reaching the site of the ambush, he was lowered through the trees to the ground where he attended to the wounded before having them lifted to the helicopter by cable. After six wounded men had been flown to an aid station, the two U.S. Air Force helicopters returned for their second load.
As one of the helicopters lowered its litter basket to Pitsenbarger, who had remained on the ground with the 20 infantrymen still alive, it was hit by a burst of enemy small-arms fire. When its engine began to lose power, the pilot realized he had to get the helicopter away from the area as soon as possible. Instead of climbing into the litter basket so he could leave with the helicopter, Pitsenbarger elected to remain with the Army troops under enemy attack and he gave a "wave-off" to the helicopter which flew away to safety. With heavy mortar and small-arms fire, the helicopters could not return to rescue Pitsenbarger.
For the next hour and a half, Pitsenbarger tended to the wounded soldiers, hacking splints out of snarled vines and building improvised stretchers out of saplings. When the others began running low on ammunition, he gathered ammunition from the dead and distributed it to those still alive. Then, he joined the others with a rifle to hold off the Viet Cong. Pitsenbarger was killed by Viet Cong snipers later that night. When his body was recovered the next day, one hand still held a rifle and the other clutched a medical kit. Although Pitsenbarger did not escape alive, 60 other men did.
Soon after Pitsenbarger was killed, his Air Force commanders nominated him for the Medal of Honor. An Army general recommended that the award be downgraded to the Air Force Cross, apparently because at the time there was not enough documentation of Pitsenbarger's actions. Pitsenbarger received the Air Force Cross on June 30, 1966. After review and nearly 35 years later, the original award was upgraded. On December 8, 2000, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the airman's father, William F. Pitsenbarger, and his wife, Alice, accepted the Medal of Honor from Secretary of the Air Force Whit Peters. During the same ceremony he was also posthumously promoted to the rank of Staff sergeant. The audience included battle survivors, hundreds of pararescue airmen, a congressional representative, and the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.
Pitsenbarger’s remarkable life story was told in the 2019 American war drama film The Last Full Measure, written, and directed by Todd Robinson. The story follows the efforts of Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman and many veterans to see the Medal of Honor awarded to Pitsenbarger. The film stars Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Irvine, and Peter Fonda, in his final film role.
While today’s reflection involves the greatest of sacrifice, one’s life, venturing out to meet glory and danger alike does not necessarily only apply to warfare. Some days may call you to use your voice, act, or stand up for something or someone you believe in despite the inherit danger in doing so. One does not need to risk their life to be in danger. Sometimes, saying that which needs to be said, doing the right thing, or having a difficult conversation can be dangerous acts in and of themselves.
How often do you venture out to meet glory and danger alike?
How often do you place others first as you navigate the chaos?
How often do you avoid a ‘dangerous’ conversation?
What is the bravest act you have ever done?
Has anyone demonstrated bravery on your behalf?