William Hurt plays a character, Thomas Tulley in the movie, The Last Full Measure. Near the end of the flick, MSGT Tulley admits that he felt this guilt when he discovered the body of his friend, William H. Pitsenbarger. Tully felt guilty because his first reaction at seeing the bullet riddled body of his mate was relief that it was not Tulley himself lying there. After the Viet Nam War, Tulley become close friends with Pitsenbarger’s parents. We see Pitsenbarger’s exploits and life through the eyes of a non-veteran, Scott Hoffman, a career bureaucrat in the Department of Defense.
To non-veterans, the guilt felt by MSGT Tulley probably seems trivial and perhaps, over-blown. But, for this veteran, it seems spot on. All of us combat veterans take away from the war these little nuggets of guilt. Those little moments when you were not perfect.
All through training, we are taught to place the needs of the unit above our own, to be selfless. In Infantry talk, we knew the worst thing was to be a buddy f***cker. That is the guilt MSGT Tulley is dealing with. For just a second, he was capable of f***cking his buddy. Just for a second. Yet, that second haunts Tulley all his life. Tulley was a young pararescue medic in that helicopter with Pitsenbarger. He was, just for a moment, glad Pitsenbarger went down into that jungle, so he, Tully, would not have to.
These are the things we bring home with us from the war. The knowledge that we are in the end, human.You can read more about Airman First Class Pitsenbarger here.