Harvey Devastated My Community, But It Reminded Me How Veterans Respond In A Time Of Need

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Volunteer rescue boats make their way into a flooded subdivision to rescue stranded residents as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

A few months back, I visited with Bill Rausch, the executive director veterans nonprofit Got Your 6. I asked him about the mission of his organization and he put it very simply, “Veterans like serving. They want to continue to serve. We try to empower them do that.” I understood what he was saying back in his D.C. office, but his message really didn’t hit home until devastating hurricane floods affected our neighborhood this past week in Houston. Over the past four days, my husband, a Marine reservist, and I have been evacuating people who lost all their material possessions to Hurricane Harvey.


Allan JasterCourtesy photo

The rain started on Saturday. Schools and businesses shut down ahead of the event starting Friday. At the time, we thought all the fuss was just precautionary. Allan, my husband, was out of town but our house was as prepared as it could be. By Sunday, Houston’s reservoirs were starting to fill and my city was flooding badly under the torrential rains. Allan pulled into the driveway that afternoon from his trip and was out the door before I could make dinner because he wanted to help. My Marine didn’t go to a buddy’s house. He didn’t help someone who had called him. He just drove with a friend until they found flooded streets and literally waded into the murky water.

Adversity does not build character, it reveals it. Some rise to the challenge while other shrink. There were so many people who grew up in the area, had family close, or knew someone nearby who were helping. What amazed me most was the number of former military members who were stepping up for absolutely no reason except a desire to help the community and the skills to do to so.

On Sunday, a friend came to our house to sit out the storm since we were not flooding. The next day, she sensed that we wanted to go out and help. “Hey, I got the kids. Go,” she told us. With that, we donned wetsuits and drove toward the flood. After pulling a few families out of a flooded area, Allan told me he wanted to check on a few people that he had met the day prior. That group included a guy named “Coach.” Coach had a take-charge demeanor and was directing many of the boats and volunteers toward the families that were still there. I was in waist-deep water and Coach was on a walkway and we started chatting about coffee.

Courtesy photo

There was something about him. I have never been able to explain it to civilians, but you just know when you are talking to someone who served — it’s the secret handshake, the unspoken veteran password, something… different. Sure enough, Coach was retired after spending a significant amount of time in the sandbox with 5th Group. After we all revealed our “military selves,” Coach and I wasted no time in ganging up on Allan because he is a Marine. Coach spent the rest of the day pointing us and other groups of people toward those who needed or wanted help. He identified concerns for those staying: “If you have a phone the gal in number 223 needs to call her mom”; “That guy over there in #318 is out of medicine”; “The family that lives here moved up there and I bet they are probably ready to go, but they have pets.”

That night, we swam back in to check on a few elderly people and to bring Coach some fresh brewed coffee. I don’t think he’d slept in two days. Allan reminded him, “Coach – when you’re drinking that good coffee, remember it was made and delivered by a Marine.” He stayed until everyone in his section chose to leave. He walked out on his own. Luckily, we bumped into him late on Tuesday and were able to give him a lift to a shelter. Within minutes of arriving, he was helping others and some of our friends were already posting about “Coach” on Facebook.

The Jaster family with 'Coach'Courtesy photo

Coach was one of many who are still serving and living “The Soldier’s Creed” long after taking off the uniform. They are holding on to those values and doing more without recognition. We saw over 100 boats during the time we were wading or swimming to knock on doors, and, for the first three days, these were all volunteers. A lot of local boys, a lot of fishermen and hunters, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of people with just a sliver of ACU or digi-camo showing.

Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of war movies, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good drama.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

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